“It’s been completely miserable.” Such was playwright David Edgar’s wry assessment of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s three day conference on the state of funding for theatre and performance, examining everything from Arts Council subsidy to the ubiquitous rise of crowd-funding. It is not, on the face of it, a rosy picture. Even in the so-called “golden years” of state subsidy during the New Labour era, substantial investment did not yield new audiences – a predicament that is unlikely to improve now that budgets are being brutally slashed – while the alternatives of sponsorship and philanthropy are attended by a whole plethora of ethical concerns.
There is, however, cause for discussion, and perhaps even a faint glimmer of optimism. To borrow a hackneyed proverb, necessity is the mother of invention; if nothing else, the current crisis is proving to be a stimulating catalyst for new and creative ways of thinking. What Subsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship has made clear, at least across the sessions on the day I attended, is a need for new, non-monetary ways of thinking about the value of theatre, a need to ask the awkward questions, a need to engage with and question the inter-linked nature of Arts Council policy and artistic trends, and a need to break through the false binaries that hamper theatre in this country.
Many discussions inevitably revolved around money, or more often than not lack of it. Yet there was also an undercurrent of resistance, a tug away from the imposition of economic measures on an art form that is essentially ephemeral and as such proves more robust against the efforts of commodification than, for instance, the visual arts. As one attendee pointed out during the concluding plenary, the theatre community needs to refocus its efforts on engaging people to value theatre, and not just attempting to persuade governments of its price tag.
Shifting away from the present gloom, the 1970s provided a compelling historical hook on which to hang the difficulties faced at this current juncture. This was a decade which similarly experienced financial crisis, mass unemployment and a Royal Jubilee, but one in which theatrical culture was characterised by a burgeoning alternative movement made up of the likes of Inter-Action, whose founder and former director were among the day’s speakers.
As well as playing with performative experiments in living, this generation of artists questioned the ways in which theatre is assigned value, from the eschewing of box office culture by the Almost Free Theatre to theatremakers’ reminiscences of planning tours around signing on for the dole, delicately captured in Susan Croft’s Unfinished Histories project. One thing that these artists spoke about strikingly in Croft’s recordings was their passionate work ethic – a work ethic outside of and not recognised by the dominant structures of capitalism.
This prompted unspoken questions about the valuing of artists today, a tender and topical subject. Bitter disputes continue to circle the widespread use of unpaid performers by projects such as You Me Bum Bum Train, disputes that often raise valid and urgent questions, but that in their admirable mission to defend the right of artists to be paid often ignore the equal right of artists to refuse payment. If the only artistic endeavours we allow are those that reimburse their participants, not only are we eliminating certain passionate but penniless pockets of innovation; we also rob artists of the option to reject monetary exchanges and pursue a definition of art that sits firmly outside of the capitalist figuring of labour.