Features Published 15 June 2016

Theatre Jargon

"The ability to write a good essay does not reflect the ability to make exceptional art." Producer and director Poppy Burton-Morgan explains how the UK's arts funding system is weighted towards people who, like her, have learnt the right jargon to tick the right boxes.
Poppy Burton-Morgan
Dictionaries, via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Alborzagros

Dictionaries, via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Alborzagros

Recently in The Stage and on Twitter there has been much discussion about the role of technical theatre jargon, with various camps arguing for the necessity of technical language, and others arguing that jargon can be both alienating and unclear. But it isn’t only the technical side of theatre that has its own lingo. Having worked for a decade as a director, and sometime producer, across a range of scales and artforms within British Theatre it’s fascinating to observe the different language used to describe theatre and how those word choices can define you within the theatrical ecology of our diverse sector (I am one of that tiny group of people who use the phrase ‘theatrical ecology’).

Look at how we talk about a piece of theatre – within musical theatre or dance it’s ‘the show’, within the artier/subsidised/devised end of the sector it’s ‘the work’ or ‘the piece’, within commercial theatre it’s ‘the product’ and for everyone else it’s ‘the production’. Depending on who I’m talking to I can describe a piece of work as all these things. And I’m very conscious, when I do so, of how the use of that specific word conditions a hearer’s expectations as to what the work/show/production/product is and where it sits.

People rarely use backstage jargon to intentionally alienate those not in the know, but when you’re just starting out in the industry it can feel intimidating – the only way through this is to swallow your pride/ego and simply ask what things mean. But the jargon used within fundraising or ‘development’ can be more problematic. Like many other freelance Director/Producers I have found myself quickly learning this language in order to keep my own theatre company Metta Theatre going, and growing. Our decade long journey from fringe to mid-scale has been possible because of my ability to successfully fundraise – by learning the right words to tick the right boxes. This is an acquired skill, and while I am hugely grateful for the continued support that we receive from funders, I grow ever more conscious that my success in that is predicated on a model that is deeply unfair if you don’t have that facility with language. I went to a very average, bog standard comprehensive, nothing special there. But I followed that by reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University – perhaps the best degree possible to prepare you for the linguistic and analytical challenges of writing funding applications.

No degree will teach you how to get Arts Council funding, but it will furnish you with the confidence to have a go in the first place, and with the tools to frame your application as a logically argued and coherent thesis. Ultimately almost every funding application amounts to an essay – often of several thousand words – arguing the case for your project to receive funding. But the ability to write a good essay does not reflect the ability to make exceptional art.

All major funders – both statutory (ie government funds like the Arts Council and local councils) and Trusts & Foundations – are heavily committed to access and diversity but the requirements of funding applications belie this. Successfully completing them means learning the terms which funders want to hear – such as ‘legacy’ (what happens after the project is over), the ‘narrative of your work/company’ (how it all connects, how you got from ‘A’ to ‘B’, and how this will take you to ‘C’). This is a struggle in itself. And it’s still harder for artists affected by dyslexia, or people without humanities degrees. Many funders provide extensive guidance notes, but these in themselves are another onslaught of words, pages and pages and pages of words.

Why not send all these artists off to work with producers or professional fundraisers? That would be fine, in an economic climate with ample resources. But not when there is barely enough funding to make the work in the first place. Artists end up paying well over the odds for the service, and taking away from the art itself. Besides which, many producers are reluctant to come on board projects until the funding is confirmed.

Shared words, private jokes – this is where theatre speak, or any industry jargon, can feel like a great unifying force. We’re all theatre-folk, we all know what we mean when we say ‘get-in’ and ‘the half’. But until you’ve learned that language, while you’re still on the outside of the joke, it can be a very lonely place. More and more organisations are getting serious about ensuring the right voices are being heard. But we need to make sure the channels to funding allow for that. There are so many artists out there with something unique and powerful to say, but there are language barriers preventing them from saying it. And these structural barriers are built into the way fundraising in this country works.

Language can set us free and the ability to articulate oneself is a fundamental part of achieving success in any sector, but for a lot of people words, especially the written word, can be both intimidating and alienating. Some funders are beginning to address this by offering the opportunity to reply either in words or through video – the difference between the written word and the spoken word, or imagery/movement/music being crucial. Hopefully those systems and structures will continue to change, and become more accessible. In the mean time let’s make sure that those of us who know the magic words are passing them on, and clarifying their obscure meanings to those who don’t.

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