“Don’t think you can just go and be angry in front of them all for 6 minutes” is what my Wife said when I told her Marcus had asked me to speak today on the idea of how theatre engages with the city it sits in.
But I am very angry when I read an article about the cuts to the public funding of arts when I know so many people whose lives are transformed by them. And I am angry again when I see that the journalist had managed to find not one, not two, not three but four white male Knights of the Realm who earn 6 figure salaries to talk about how these cuts are going to have an impact on the art that regular people get to see.
But I don’t want to be angry, so counter intuitively I’ve recently been looking to the past- to 30 years ago and more- for my inspirations as to how my theatre might engage with the city it sits in. When I say city I mean the people who live in it and the things they do- that’s the definition of city I am interested in.
I’ve been reading Joan Littlewood’s autobiography. Inspired and amazed by an artist who was fearlessly determined for her theatre to engage with the city it sat in. Of all the things that Joan’s Little Book taught me the clearest to me is that if you want people to see theatre you have to put it in a building they feel welcome in and your tickets shouldn’t be a 1/3 of job seeker’s allowance. Keep tickets affordable. That’s what Joan taught me.
At the beginning of the year I hadn’t ever read John McGrath’s book A Good Night Out. John McGrath ran a company called 7:84- named after the statistic that 7% of the population owned 84 percent of the wealth- He was a socialist, working in working class places and traditions. And in 1979, again somewhat counter intuitively perhaps, he gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University. And I’d never read them. What’s extraordinary about them is that they feel like they were written this morning interrogating the problems we face today.
He said in one of these lectures “A serious playwright today must work with all the elements of the language of the theatrical event- he or she must reinvent theatre every time… the whole theatre, not just what is said on stage. The simple acceptance of, say, the location of the event, the kind of publicity available, the price of admission and the behaviour of the box office staff as all being someone else’s problem, and not areas of personal concern for the creative artists means that in effect a great deal of the meaning of the event socially and politically is taken away…”
Everything about the event is my concern as an artist.
The show I’m directing in York in September is called Blood and Chocolate. It’s Mike Kenny’s tale of ordinary chocolate workers during and in the First World War. It takes place over a mile and a half of York’s city centre and it’s performed by 177 community actors. It is the project that was designed to continue the energy of last year’s Mysteries when 600 community performers were seen by just short of 33,000 audience members. You can’t have a conversation about theatre in this city without someone mentioning it. It was and remains compelling. Completely engaging. And there is nothing older theatrically in this country than the Mysteries.
We had an Indian Company called Jana Natya Manch visit at the HUB recently. The HUB is my company’s home- 5 railway arches in Holbeck, South Leeds- a place where local artists can make their work and every couple of weeks we have invited shows come and present the work. All the shows are Pay What You Decide with the audience paying after the show and all the money they pay goes direct to the performing artists. Anyway we have this Indian company come visit us because they are on a trade union tour of the UK.
They are this fierce agit-prop street-theatre company who present a 20 minute piece about violence towards women, it’s in Hindi but it doesn’t matter, it’s compelling, they’re amazing and we make them dinner after and we’re chatting and one of them says “This is just like our space in India, the same, so perfect for us to be here, like our spaces are brothers.” And my heart is bursting because, as you will have gathered from this speech, this is like the most perfect thing that could be said to me and I’m all like “Amazing. yeah. cool. what’s your space called?’
‘Ah’ he says ‘our space is named after one of our members who was beaten to death in the middle of one of our performances by the people who rather we didn’t perform.’
And I’m all like, no, dude we aren’t the same.
They don’t get paid to do what they do this company, we talked about how they are technically ‘amateurs’ and I thought about the Mysteries with it’s 600 people seen by 33,000 and I thought of Blood and Chocolate with not just its 180 performers but it’s army of costume makers and people who bake buns and make badges in order to raise funds for the show and I think it’s going to be really hard to work on projects in the future that don’t engage people with this level of intensity. And I try to connect all of that in my head with the 4 knights of the realm with their 6 figure salaries telling people how the quality of their arts provision will be reduced because of the Government cuts and I am more certain than ever that the solution to today’s problems can’t simply be the better execution of yesterday’s plan. The vast majority of our theatre is not engaging the cities it sits in anywhere near as well as the best of our theatre does. And that’s got to change.
But I mention the Indian visitors not for any of that but because of the way they perform. India is noisy. They perform in the street. They have become very adept at making their point quickly, at managing traffic and choosing the right site. But the most efficient way to be heard is for the audience to form a series of tight circles around them. The bodies of their audience soak up the noise from behind and in the first 3 or 4 rings of audience they describe an intensity of sound, an intimacy of sound. But of course if some in the audience get bored by what is happening and they leave, the circle is broken and the city’s sound will come rushing in killing the show.
That is an awe inspiring level of engagement with the city and the people who live in it. And one worth aspiring to.