Blog Post: Culture can be dangerous in the right hands and the hope of confident citizens

Fairy Portal Slung Low 3-099-Edit

Tonight we have a ceilidh at the HUB. If you don’t know what a ceilidh is it’s a collective community dance, led by a team of brilliant exceptional artists, in which all levels of experience and talent can participate and the more involved the better it is. It’s also much fun.

The ceilidh is to mark the opening of Slung Low’s Cultural Community College. 

The ceilidh is a metaphor innit. A metaphor with a £1 bar and some free sandwiches. You’d be very welcome.

Recently I’ve been doing press interviews for the college: a Pay What You Decide programme of cultural activity from star-gazing to documentary making, cooking to blacksmything. It’s been different from doing press for a show. Partly because nearly everything at the college is sold out so it stops being about urgently telling people to book tickets. But also because the journalists and me know how we’re meant to talk about an upcoming show- there’s a rhythm to the conversation- and normally it’s hard to break out of the pattern set for both of us.

But there’s no pattern for talking about a theatre company creating a cultural community college and that freedom for both parties has led to some really interesting chats: about education, the arts, the market, the value of things and caring less about your legacy and more on your impact on people tomorrow. And as is natural if you spend that long explaining what you’re up to to people you come to a much better understanding of what it is you’re up to and crucially why.

We’ve spoken a lot about the training the company undertook to prepare for Flood last year. Training in boats, abseiling, pyrotechnics and forklifts made us confident about undertaking those tasks of course but more importantly made us more confident generally- the act of learning new things building an internal confidence. The whole company went on 3 days of first aid training with some trainers from the mountain rescue. It was intense. A few days later one of the gang called to tell me that since the training they were just feeling so much more confident and as a result a bit happier. Asked why that was they said that after the training there was one less thing to be scared of, one more thing that they didn’t feel intimidated by, one less thing to be scared of in the wide world. Specific knowledge brought general confidence.

Fairy Portal Slung Low 4-156-Edit

I remember the first time I went to see an orchestra. It was at the Barbican. I was directing a show in their studio at the time so hardly an outsider, packing plenty of cultural capital. I went to see the ENO. It was excruciating. There were all these people who knew the rules, I was wearing the wrong clothes, I was certain they were looking down their noses at me, I clapped at the wrong time, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. By the end of that performance- which was extraordinary I recognise now- I was about as antagonistic about orchestras as is possible. And ungenerous. So ungenerous in my opinion of the art, the form, their funding- everything. Partly that was a response to being made to feel unwelcome sure, but it was also a lot to do with not knowing- feeling lost- unconfident. And the antagonism was a response to that unconfidence. I mean I know all you lot know that but it took me years to realise it. 

The more confident we are the kinder we can be, the more generous we can be. When we feel threatened we are less outward looking, less confident. And less kind.

We need kindness right now.

Knowledge brings confidence. Confidence allows kindness.

I’ve been reading the autobiography of Joe Papp. He is an American producer who founded the Public Theatre.  He was in the Navy, worked at the Actors Lab and then was a stage manager at CBS. Then he starts putting on Shakespeare in downbeat outdoor parks. It was a revolutionary idea. He didn’t charge for tickets- passing a hat around some of the poorest communities of New York at the end of the show. He decides to build a stage on an old lorry and tours New York’s poorest boroughs until he finally ends up parking the stage permanently in Central Park because the bus is too knackered to carry on.  The shows are profoundly successful, full, critically acclaimed, free.

And that’s when the chief city official decides that unless Joe Papp is willing to charge people tickets to come and see the shows then he’s throwing them out of the park. He’s a powerful man this official, everyone is scared of him. Papp isn’t. It’s a really simple threat: charge people to see the show and you can stay, keep giving it away for free and you’re done- if it is any good people will pay for it, right?  Papp pulls in every favour, every trick he can and holds his nerve. He wins. Of course he does. It’s daft to bet against people like Papp: there are some people who can bring a reality in to being with sheer force of will. 

Papp was investigated, just before the city official comes for him, by the House Un-American Activity Committee: the McCarthyite loons who investigated left-wing American artists, blacklisting whole swathes of the industry and ruining lives. Joe Papp refused to name names and was one of the few who wasn’t crushed by the refusal.

Joe Papp got it. He understood on a fundamental level that asking people to pay what they decide at the end of a performance is not an act of social charity. It is an act of politics.

And in 1950’s New York it was a dangerous act of politics.

IMG_5476We’ve been working with the brilliant Sam Scott-Wood on how Slung Low talks to the public and about itself now it’s simultaneously a maker of epic peoples’ theatre around the country, runs a studio theatre and a rehearsal space in Leeds and operates a Community Cultural College in a converted double decker bus. That needs a bit of clarity and thinking about: Sam led us on that process. We spent a long time talking about the distinction between reckless and danger, risk and hazard. Finding a way to express the determination and boldness and wildness which we work hard to maintain in everything we do in a way that might not appear unhelpfully combative. Amongst much else Sam came up with the tagline 

Culture can be dangerous in the right hands

I’ll be eternally gratefully to Sam for giving me the language to be bold and not overly combative. And to Joe Papp for reassuring me that there are times when combative is what the day demands. Extraordinary things require extraordinary effort. Some days.

Camelot Selects 2 (1)

The Slung Low Cultural Community College is being made possible because of money and support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council, England.

Funders quite rightly want solid outcomes they can measure: it’s important to help make the argument about where the money should be spent: not everyone agrees with the world view that culture should be accessible and shared so the argument must be made and remade. 

In many places the received wisdom has been for too long that outreach in theatres can be measured best by how many new customers is generated for the “core” work of the main stage. Participation driving people to the core business of a playhouse.

I’m not interested in creating more customers for work that wasn’t designed to excite those people in the first place. What cultural education can do at its best is to make people more confident. It surely sells us all short to imagine the best thing that can be done with that confidence is to buy tickets to another production of Twelfth Night. Much more exciting is the idea that with that confidence can come the realisation that the most powerful role available to our participants is not that of customer but that of confident (and one dreams kind) Citizen*.

That’s what I am hoping for. That’s the goal for the college. That in four years what we know to be true is that the college helped a load of people, including us, be better citizens. 

Camelot youth riot

*when I’ve spoken about citizens before people have expressed disquiet about the phrase because of the distinction between UK Citizens and foreigners. I just want to take a moment to explain I am talking about something different: Citizen as empowered decision making individual, connected to its community and confident in taking responsibility from corporation and state to ensure that where and how they live is good enough for all of us. As someone married to a non-UK citizen I am well aware of the inherent inequalities in the distinction between UK Citizen and other and reject that as the best we can be entirely.

**That’s right we bought a double decker bus and David Farley designed it into 2 classrooms and Matt Angove has been leading a team of artists in the work to make it a reality. It’ll be finished this evening then I promise photos.

The photos above are from Fairy Portal Camp and Camelot and taken by James Phillips.

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