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.

Comments (11)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Before embarking on a national arts manifesto, I think you first need to acknowledge the enormous, critical collective failure of the creative arts (with a few honourable exceptions) to prepare our society for the current pandemic, and indeed for many other challenging aspects of modern life. One of the few exceptions would include the computer game Plague Inc.: Evolved, which has itself evolved and added many topical scenarios.

    And partly I think there may be (I am not a regular theatre-goer) a serious lack of near-future-realistic dramatic science fiction being produced here. Most of the prominent examples I can think of are foreign productions. And partly there seems to be serious biases and over-representation of various groups (under-representation of others) in theatre which has resulted in ineffectual challenges to the status quo, at least for mainstream audiences. I could be wrong, but in any case my impression is that theatre has been slower than other forms to really mount a challenge to aspects of British culture like pro-colonialism (again, the real challenges may come from creatives abroad).

    Are privileged (and patronaged) institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company part of the problem? Have they been judiciously pruning (Germaine Greer’s term) their source material to try to wrangle the plays into royalist contortions? Why are people still contending that Shakespeare is asking ‘what makes a good leader’, when it is pretty obvious to me that the whole project was a forensic critique of the institution of (particularly hereditary) monarchy? Isn’t that clapped-out ideology of leadership the problem, which will only fester in the creation of a new creative establishment?

    1. SleepingDog says:

      Update: it is perhaps significant that the Wikipedia page on British television science fiction has attracted the revisionary attentions of the user ‘Philip Cross’ (later banned from editing pages on “post-1978 British politics”):

      As the article says in its conclusions, “We have a choice of futures”. But how many are we being presented with?

      1. Robert says:

        The Wikipedia user ‘Philip Cross’ is quite a controversial figure – now a public one, too – that’s doing a lot of harm to Wikipedia and neutral points of view in general. Unfortunately there seems to be very little interest in maintaining a balanced voice and remove such aggressive users.

    2. Paula Becker says:

      Why should the creative arts prepare for a pandemic!? That’s the job of our Public Health organisations surely.
      Computer games are not an art form.
      If you run PCR tests with a cycle threshold over 35 the results are meaningless. You get a pseudo pandemic.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Paula Becker, “Computer games are not an art form”?! What a bizarre notion. Why don’t you check out the nominations for the 2021 BAFTA Games Awards?

        Creative arts surely have a role in preparing society for possible futures. It is particularly useful to understand how people might behave in unusual or emergency contexts. A famous example would be Boccaccio’s Decameron:
        “The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men; they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353.”
        The problem with much of mainstream British creative-industry productions is (it would appear to me) that they project an unrealistic and often dumbed-down worldview celebritised consumer consumption, political disengagement and elitism.

        1. Paula Becker says:

          The Black Death lasted from 1346 – 53. Boccaccio finishes The Decameron in 1353. Therefore he is looking back on the previous few years not making a prediction about the future.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Paula Becker, I said preparation, not prediction, although it seems pretty obvious that plagues happen again and again, as did that one:
            “The second plague pandemic was a major series of epidemics of plague that started with the Black Death, which reached Europe in 1348 and killed up to a half of the population of Eurasia in the next four years. Although the plague died out in most places, it became endemic and recurred regularly. A series of major epidemics occurred in the late 17th century, and the disease recurred in some places until the late 18th century or the early 19th century.”

            And I am talking about collective failures (or successes) of creative arts in unpreparing (or preparing) society, so we have to seen The Decameron as part of a wider genre of literature, within a still-wider culture. There is a “who lives, who dies” theme in many of these works, sometimes as morality tales, or more objective assessments, or sometimes featuring randomness, each with a message about the author’s worldview in that work. Authorities may fear the overturning of established order, the religious may have divine interpretations, and it seemed that Boccaccio was pushing what Wikipedia calls a “mercantile ethic” (I have only read short snippets, myself).

            Contrast the British unpreparedness for epidemics with the amount of cultural prep devoted to warfare (although the toy guns and war comics of my youth seem to have past their sell-by date). Public health organizations, in what passes for democracies, have policies to some extent selected through electoral representation, and the electorate are influenced by culture. Culture which can, it seems, often easily whip up public fears of unrealistic dangers as well as real, and downplay the very real ones (for example, fear of wolves in certain European countries may be being currently exaggerated, while real dangers of, say, road traffic and air pollution might be played down).

          2. Paula Becker says:

            It’s the Brass sections, ballet dancers and stained glass artists that have really let things slide. They need to step up if we’re gonna get prepared for the next big one.

  2. A.J. Gillon says:

    A National Online Hub sounds like a good idea. Kind of like Spotify but public and showcasing arts in/of Scotland, and of course distributing the income better to the content creators.

    Problems to overcome include: (1) how to define what’s “Scottish” and (2) extent of freedom of expression on the platform.

    Possible solutions: (1) residency? / citizenship? / Scotland-related but produced by non-Scots? (2) everything goes, freedom to upload (incl. what would be “hate speech” in everyday discourse – see issue of Spanish rappers being put in jail, etc.)? / selective, with a board to decide on every piece of content, like the BBFC (but who goes on board)? / commissioning carried out by appointed editors (making it like a national online arts broadcaster)?

  3. A.J. Gillon says:

    Plus one policy, sooner: get the theatres open ASAP. Yes it brings people together indoors, but the ability to implement social distancing is built-in: part-filling auditoria (to adjustable levels), assigned seat numbers, masks mandatory, testing for performers, etc.

    Compare: people are already buying tickets for music festivals in the summer: yes they’re outdoors, but they are uncontrollable, likely super spreader events with singing, shouting, alcohol. Like Ascot / the big Italian Spanish football matches of Jan/Feb 2020.

    Consider: theatres, seated music concerts, are all continuing to operate in other countries (definitely Spain). Work needs to be done to test how soon and how theatre can safely resume, given current transmission levels.

  4. Paula Becker says:

    Hi Peter, all the above is very interesting but how do you actually FEEL about the performing arts being wrecked for a disease with a fatality ratio of 0.23 percent across the population and 0.05 percent in the under 70s.

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