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Features Published 13 May 2016

Theatre 2016: OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND

Theatre 2016, “The largest ever industry-wide conference for everyone who cares about the future of theatre in the UK”, has managed to alienate an astonishing number of people who care about theatre. Here's Andrew Haydon on how they've done it.
Andrew Haydon

So, there’s this new conference, “Theatre 2016”. And, on the face of it, it looks like a brilliantly-organised conference. It’s got sessions about all those burning meta-questions that theatre has been asking non-stop since I started going to theatre twenty years ago, and it’s got a pretty peerless set of speakers. The tag-line for the conference is: “The largest ever industry-wide conference for everyone who cares about the future of theatre in the UK”.

And it costs OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND.

Theatre 2016 is organised by BON Culture, a new “enterprise” set up by David Brownlee and Mari O’Neill. Here’s what BON Culture has to say about itself on its website: “At BON Culture we provide insightful collaborative guidance to arts and cultural organisations to secure and improve their artistic and commercial futures.” And here’s Brownlee’s personal statement that BONC is “a new enterprise that I hope will allow me to use my skills and experience to help the cultural sector to thrive in what will be increasingly hard times.”

By charging OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND.

Now, reading through the list of talks, and the list of sponsors of the talks, (“TRG Arts is a trusted consulting partner with a focus on achieving results—growth in patrons, their loyalty and sustainable income from them”, for example), one could very easily conclude that this is essentially a neoliberal think tank laying out the fait accompli of Tory Arts Policy: “Here’s what’s going to happen when there’s no funding. We’re here to the provide insightful collaborative guidance to secure the commercial future you’re going to need to run a theatre” is one very possible reading of the super-agenda.

But I can’t say if that’s accurate, because it’s OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND.

It would also be very easy to argue that the conference is top-down imposing a lot of the wrong questions, and phrasing them in the most unhelpful ways imaginable. (“Technology and the stage – opportunity or threat?”(!) “Who will pay for the value that theatre brings to society?” (not “should”, one notes). Yes, the industry speakers they have answering those questions are frequently excellent and will have thought about the issues behind the questions a lot. And they will doubtless have good ideas to share with the conference delegates. But then, ironically, almost all the conference delegates would probably also be able to give similar presentations on their own best practice, because they all run theatres too, because only people who have institutional support can possibly hope to attend this conference

Because it costs OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND (*and* there are institutional discounts).

So it’s nice that people who run theatres and all know each other anyway get a couple of days to think about some of the issues they’re already thinking about and working on on a daily basis. No one’s really arguing with that. And, while it looks somewhat stupid to hold an event that raises questions about London-centricity and failing government support in a privately owned West End theatre, in London, I guess we could let that pass too. And we can try to overlook problematic dynamics of having these presentations delivered from a particular sort of stage that brooks no kind of interaction whatsoever. But I don’t think anyone’s going to forget “for everyone who cares about the future of theatre”.

Because OVER FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS TO ATTEND ISN’T EVERYONE.

No. What BON Culture have done is knock together an incredibly expensive package by paying enough of the right people to speak, and then made a lot of money out of selling it back to a hostage industry audience wrapped up in their own neoliberal agenda at a massive profit. It looks worryingly like a reproduction of the exact same model they expect theatres to start using.

What “Theatre 2016” has achieved, is giving “everyone who cares about the future of theatre” a glimpse of what that future is going to look like if it’s left in the hands of private consultants and sponsors: ludicrously overpriced prestige events put together entirely to make money for the organisers.

No one asked for this event. It is entirely surplus to requirements. It privileges the privileged. It is *incredibly expensive*. And, it is (understandably) so insecure about its revenue stream – the inherent value of *being there* – that it didn’t even livestream.

It is the precise opposite of the spirit of generosity and community with which state-funded and independent fringe theatre must operate. Instead, it offers the profit-driven logic of the free-market.

And it has excluded almost everyone who cares about the future of theatre.

Well done, BON Culture.

To read more of Andrew Haydon’s writing, visit his blog, Postcards from the Gods.

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Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/

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