Monday, 21 March 2011

Ethics and the End of Theatre

Apologies for the rather grandiose title for this post, actually a conflation of two things – a heated recent exchange with the co-ordinator of an artist network in Berlin, and a first tentative observation, based on a series of enquiries and applications received whilst still 3 weeks to go to the application deadline.

The ethical debate, that to be honest took me rather by surprise, was the issue of whether a festival for new artists should pay those artists, and if not, whether it should exist at all.  My surprise, I should hasten to add, was not at the idea of paying artists, but that a festival that is putting pretty much all of its hard-earned funding into creating the best experience it can for its participants, should find itself arguing for the right to exist, and not with some governmental or funding authority, but with an unpaid artist network co-ordinator in Berlin. Writing this I still feel like I’m struggling for the moral high-ground, and yet the other option, the option to not exist at all would be an option to not support new artists and the health of a poorly acknowledged sector of radical arts practice, to not fight a difficult corner, and to opt for a much easier life.

If the experimental theatre sector in this country was properly respected and funded, able to easily pull a substantial public audience based on a high national profile, then I could see how a new festival with limited funding could be accused of trying to cash in, and at the expense of the artists involved. But we know we are fighting not just for new artists but for a whole area of the arts that will always struggle in this country - against TV, against the Great Literary Tradition, against that idea that proper theatre involves proper actors and proper plays and a proper posh night out. A festival aimed at raising the profile and status of experimental theatre in this country has got its work cut out - one of the reasons why we have tied our flag to the ongoing creative health and self-belief of the participating artists, and not to the number of column inches that even the local press will give us.

But moral indignation aside, it does expose the more intriguing question of when should we pay for the output of a ‘new artist’? When they are famous? When they’re dead (see most of history)? And can anyone tell the difference between a new artist on the way up, and a young person who has already exhausted their creative potential and will soon be doing something else? And if there’s no real ‘market forces’ to determine cultural value, who is to tell when a putative performance event is going to be ‘worth it’?  Is there supposed to be some omniscient being in touch with the absolute, able to predict and determine absolute value in a way that those lower down the order will happily accept? Oh dear, is that supposed to be me? Is that what a festival curator is?

And so to the end of theatre… I know it’s early days, but the applications, recommendations and enquiries are already falling, for the most part, into two piles. Bearing in mind our bold claim to represent the future of theatre, (and not wanting to identify any of the applicants at this stage), one of these piles is made up of work tied closely to long established theatrical practice, and the other is made up of work difficult to categorise as ‘theatre’. The pile of others, good and bad, is much smaller. I know I’ve yet to share a definitive definition of what theatre is, but it still looks like the future of theatre is either its past, or the future of theatre is no theatre.

Whichever it is, and still smarting from recent apparently ethical debates, this job is feeling a little harder going than it looked like it was going to be a couple of weeks ago...

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