Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Think She's Gonna Pull Through...



There is a lot of concern in the theatre community (on both sides of the Atlantic) on the impact these recession ravaged years may have on the immediate future of the arts. This is very understandable. Here in the U.S. the concern is more generalized in terms of people simply tightening their belts and cutting back on discretionary spending – meaning fewer tickets sold and companies of all sizes facing a drop in operating income, or even the chop. With less operating income, conventional wisdom has it that more and more theatres will turn to the safe, proven hits that are more likely to guarantee return on investment, and consequently drop new writing like a bad smell. To some degree I have already seen signs of this happening. But, as lamentable as it is, during tough times everyone has to go into survival mode, so you can’t blame the non-profits for doing what they need to do to stay afloat.

In the U.K. things are a little different. Much theatre is state subsidized, and the new “coalition” government (a combination of Conservatives and whored Liberals) is taking an axe to public spending in a way that makes Lizzie Borden look like Laura Ingalls. The scale of the cuts they are proposing (and now implementing) are truly abhorrent, and quite possibly counterproductive to a fragile yet delicately resurgent economy. But to a theatre community that relies substantially on state funding, they are being seen as a guillotine to the neck of new, exiting and original talent that is fostered and propagated under such conditions. In fact, in The Guardian, Lee Hall (writer of “Billy Elliot” and the Broadway bound “The Pitman Painters”) writes a very powerful and passionate article on the devastating consequences such cuts would engender. (A wonderful line that I have to quote from it, in speaking of the coalition government, is this one: “Do not be fooled – they are much more dangerous because they don't know what they don't know.”).

Only time will tell, of course, whether such predictions of calamity will come to pass. I myself, though, do not believe that the sky is about to fall. As ugly and regrettable as the whole situation that got us here is, the fact remains that theatre has, and always will have, a card up its sleeve that will ensure its survival: its fundamental nature. Theatre can be produced anywhere at any time with next to no resources other than a group of willing individuals offering up their time and talent to tell a story. It doesn’t even need a stage – only the concept of one. Theatre is all about the audience buying into the world being presented to them by the practitioners of it. They know it’s not “real.” They know the blood is fake. They know the wood-paneled walls are painted board. But they buy into it willingly, because they accept that that is the nature of theatre. It isn’t film or television, where reality is painfully (and expensively) recreated to achieve believability. In those industries, lack of funding is a death knell. Theatre, though, whenever it needs to, can go right back to basics and still work its magic. The experience is unique, and that is why it has survived - marginalized though it may be – the onslaught of film, television, and anything else that’s been thrown at it.

I wouldn’t expect those who have made their careers under the umbrella of government subsidized funding (we are, after all, merely talking about subsistence funding, rather than an actual living wage) to share my optimism. For them it is a lifeline that’s being withdrawn. But for the state of theatre in general, I see no atom bomb. We've lived through difficult economic times before, just as we’ve lived under previous arts-unfriendly governments. Plays will always be written, and entrepreneurial, driven people will always find ways, means, and venues to put them on. They may not make any money from it, but that was never the goal in the first place.

Was it?

(Would be nice, though)

P.S: Lyn Gardner in The Guardian yesterday wrote a very interesting piece about audiences, which I thought was perfect in light of my little paean the day before.

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