The power of community

17 April 2019

Art can change the world, says Slung Low's Alan Lane

It was an extraordinary experience sitting on the stage during the first discussion watching the student and Roy Alexander Weise have that conversation about opportunity and race and class and in the end, I think, fear and comradeship. It had, like all worthwhile difficult conversations, its sense of danger, the tension palpable – but, led by the two people speaking, we just held on to our collective good faith – the promise of this special week maintained – that there is something to be learnt by all those listening and by all those speaking.

And it's important that as a large heavy footed white middle aged man I don’t go blundering into the conversation any more than I already had. I kept quiet.

But the first half of the discussion, before we moved to race and opportunity, contained a number of things that I wish there had been time to circle back to.

The idea that we don’t give money to theatre makers who don’t hold a liberal, left-wing ideology is not true. We can discuss if we give money to literal fascists another time and there’s no need here to go into the personal politics and connections of various leaders of the British theatre industry, because at its heart the structures of our theatre industry are inherently conservative and consciously and unconsciously designed to uphold a set of values that are entirely political. And entirely not liberal and left-wing.

As we discussed yesterday the industry continues to fail to recognise and celebrate the work, craft, stories and lives of people of colour, the disabled community, and LGBTQ+ and women artists. The reliance at the highest levels in our industry on the demonstrably false justification of meritocracy is based in a right wing belief system (in no way is this to suggest the left isn’t riddled with these same cruelties). The locking out of narratives from so many communities from our theatres is reliant on the belief that if you value it you will pay for it, and that our white male dominated canon and therefore content of our stages are based on the disingenuous and wicked belief that talent rises equally from a people. The majority of our public funding goes to organisations who are built on these beliefs and have boards who are charged with maintaining them.

These things are not politically neutral – a set of beliefs that rest on the pillars of capitalism and historic imperialism, rife with ableism, sexism, homophobia and racism. No wonder we don’t see more disabled people, people of colour, queer performers and women on our stages and in our programmes. These are realities based in political beliefs – and you accept them or you don’t. But accepting them, however passively, is still a political choice. No matter how many recyclable coffee cups we insist on in our green rooms, our industry’s institutional structures are based on those cruelties, not as accidental side effects but as the scaffolding. It isn’t politically neutral.

And so when we have a conversation about whether art can change the world in order to start to believe such things are possible we have to overcome centuries of value systems and hierarchies that tell us that it isn’t. And that is hard. It requires us to overcome the fear of looking foolish, of looking naive, of hoping and having that hope squashed by the much easier sneer of cynicism. The sarcastic snide of 'oh, you thinking you’re changing the world.'

Yes I do. So do many of my colleagues. Art, theatre, culture, stories can change the world. In buses, in pubs, in community centres, on high streets, in schools and occasionally even in theatres – but not as often as anyone would like. 

The belief that this activism, cultural democracy and engagement is separate from ‘excellent’ art is increasingly old fashioned and unsustainable as a belief in the face of evidence.

The nation’s most exciting, most inventive and political theatre makers are community theatre makers; from Emily Lim at National Theatre (London), Company Three, Kully Thiarai (National Theatre Wales), Sheffield People’s Theatre, James Phillips, Jenny Sealey and Graeae and on and on. There are writers, directors and companies making work with a different set of values at their heart which are reaching national audiences, critical acclaim and people in a way that our traditional models can only dream of. 

The very finest piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen was the Opening Ceremony of Paralympics Ceremony of London 2012 – an act of community theatre of extraordinary entertainment, impeccable principles, the highest standards of engagement and a belief in the power and purpose of each individual that it remains the benchmark to which I aspire. It was watched by millions.

The idea that community theatre can’t be used for the highest artistic and political purposes is an aggressively conservative one. It is a political one. As is the sneering belief that art can’t change the world. And if nothing else you should always question the motives of those that would snide you into thinking that.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney