We had our local MP down the HUB. It was first time we’ve done that so it was pretty exciting. It is to a theatre company what hoovering is to a 6 year old; you are aware that everyone older than you hates it but it all seems so exciting you can’t imagine a time when it will become dull.
He asked “why are you an artist?” straight out of the gate. Which is a smart question to open with. I talked about how stories are how we work out our place in the world, how we make sense of the most painful and joyful parts of life; making stories for crowds of other people is an amazing thing to do with your life. Standard. I believe it too. Every bit. Not just on a personal level (on which I’ve bored before) but because the two times a show of mine has attempted to be changed by the authorities the sheer terrifying weight they bring to bear on you is all the proof I need to be certain that stories are important. Actually important in the real world important, not just five stars in The Stage important, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered.
I mentioned Chris Bryant. He asked if Bryant’s comments about public school boys dominating cultural life had exercised me. Aware that at least some of my lunch guest school’s had been independent and not wanting to piss in the soup I brushed past the point to say that what had exercised me more was that Bryant had declared there were areas of cultural drought when I think that underestimates the breadth and depth of the cultural scene in UK. Chris Bryant is MP for Rhonnda so maybe he just needs to get out more.
At some point, in the manner of these conversations where you are trying your hardest not to say anything contentious, I surprised myself by saying “imagine how different the global image of the UK would be if James Bond had a northern accent?”
Which I then sat kicking myself for. Sean Connery. I’m an idiot.
We talked about the fact that the ten year anniversary of 7/7 was approaching, that he was the MP for the place the bombers came from; we talked about the difficulties we’d had in the staging of James Phillip’s brilliant new adaptation of Moby Dick with it’s young, angry British Muslim lead character; and the fact that in July we’ll be performing on the streets of Sheffield a new version of the King Arthur myth that deals with Christian violent extremism. We talked about how in many northern cities there are people’s theatres, large performance companies of citizens led by professional creative teams, performing contemporary versions of national stories, and often not on stages but in public spaces; Library Theatre’s take on Peterloo Massacre in a northern quarter warehouse; York Theatre Royal and the Mysteries and Blood & Chocolate; and of course Sheffield People’s Theatre.
Big public stories. Stories about things that matter. Stories that help us think about impossibly large things. Told by people who live in those places.
How the stories are told are as important as the what. These aren’t plays for quartets of professional actors in studios but armies of citizens. And the who is telling them is important too. The ownership, the civic nature of these productions. Hearing about the Paralympic Opening ceremony taught me that. The who is important. I believe that.
Back to lunch. Of course ‘who’ our leading actors are is important. “Try making Our Friends in the North with 4 Benedict Cumberbatchs.” The type of people becoming our leading actors will effect the variety of stories told. That’s inevitable. These stories change the way we see ourselves. So if there is a corruption in our “leading actor selection” system we need to fix it.
But you don’t do it by dragging individuals down. You don’t do it by stifling the talent of Mr Cumberbatch. That’s idiotic. You don’t fix anything by attacking the top of the problem- there talent is rightly it’s own defence. The minute the discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean.
You do it by looking at the source. You do it first by accepting that it is statistically so unlikely, so preposterously unlikely that access to opportunity is equal if so many of our leading acting talent comes from a financially selecting top 7% of the nation’s children. You accept that.
If our industry (and the educational worlds that feed into it) was fair, based entirely and only on talent, would our companies, our casts and our lists of 500 most important look like they do? No, they wouldn’t. They really wouldn’t.
And if that is the case (and just look at the lack of gender and ethnic diversity to be assured that it is) do we think we would see any change in the stories we were telling if we made it fair? fuck yes. Of course changing the people telling the stories would change the stories.
We- in part at least- are telling the wrong stories. No wonder we are fucked. We are telling the stories generated by the needs and outputs of an unfair system.
It was a nice lunch. Interesting, engaged, thoughtful company.
But there was something sloshing around the day after I couldn’t put my finger on; I thought it was forgetting Sean Connery was Bond but no.
7/7. Our Friends in the North. Daniel Craig. James Bond. Public Schools. Then I remembered.
About 12 or 13 years ago I applied to be an officer in the army. After bits and bobs I end up in an interview room with a Brigadier. Towards the end of the interview he asks what regiment or service I want to go into.
-Army Intelligence. My father was in intelligence, in the RAF. He had died not so long ago. I’d like to go into Army Intelligence.
He looked at my file. Is there something else? he asked.
-No not really.
You didn’t go to the right school for intelligence.
-I could go away and learn a language; arabic, chinese?
No, have a think about what else you might want to do.
I didn’t continue with my application.
I remember an episode of Spooks once when they had to create an elaborate back story for Rupert Penry-Jones about being an Aleppo arab with white skin and blue eyes so that he could infiltrate a gang of islamic terrorists. It was one of the sillier episodes of Spooks, and that is a bar set pretty high.
It matters who is doing the thing as well as how well it is done. (Not that I would have been much help in pushing back jihadism, I completely accept. Going undercover with my ginger beard and blue eyes!).
There is nothing wrong with going to private school, or at least nothing wrong for which individuals should be punished. Some of the incredibly talented members of Slung Low and our finest collaborators went to public schools- I am their biggest fan, their most dedicated champion. The minute this discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean. And neither is it driven by the politics of envy; no more than the certainty I feel that theatres must be physically accessible to all is driven by a resentment of the able-bodied. But if we don’t recognise that the overall system is inherently rigged, that the playing field is far from fair then we’ll never untap the talent (in all fields) that is going to waste.
Theatre and the arts are not the only offenders as Nicholas Hytner said earlier in the week. But he was wrong that we shouldn’t be picked on. We tell stories that help people understand the world, tackle the impossible issues of the day. If we do not have the very best people, if we do not have a diversity of tellers, then we will be telling the wrong stories.
This is important. Not as important as infiltrating a gang of islamic terrorists thanks to belonging to an unlikely if factually correct tribe of blue eyed, fair skinned Aleppo Arabs I grant you. But still. Important enough for Mr Hytner to turn his mind to as a matter of urgency.