Features Published 8 August 2020

WTF Next

Maddy Costa reflects on the conversations started by WTF Next, an online meeting place to discuss the future of theatre.

Maddy Costa

Image: Roger Bradshaw via Creative Commons

Like many drawn to theatre as a space in which to practise alternative ways of living together – not just to dream up new futures but begin to inhabit them in the present – I spend a lot of time feeling disappointed and dispirited by the realities of the sector. It has great people in it, people who genuinely care and transform lives with their work, but its institutional structures are indomitably capitalist, with all the inequalities and concern for product over people that implies. The Covid-19 pandemic has done so much to expose these inequalities as unendurable, in theatre same as everywhere else. And while some in the industry have been talking about rebuilding theatre, I’ve been thinking about de-building it: closing down all the venues that aren’t wheelchair-accessible, dismantling the whiteness and class privilege of staff and boards, prioritising community and relationships even at the expense of the show going on.

That thinking might have stayed in my own head (social media = social anxiety), but for a tweet by theatre-maker Annie Siddons that I chanced on in early May: ‘feel like I need to be part of a conversation where we talk about the future of theatre esp for independent artists / smaller companies’. I was interested in this conversation too, but back then it didn’t seem like any were happening openly: Improbable and BAC hadn’t yet announced online dates for Devoted and Disgruntled; artistic directors were talking in private and hadn’t yet brought together the groups that now form the Freelance Task Force and Freelancers Make Theatre Work; if you weren’t in a relationship with a venue, it was hard to know who was hosting what. With Annie absorbed by the demands of work and double-generational care, I offered to organise an alternative conversation space. And because I’m a bit of an idiot, I called this space WTF Next.

If Annie was the inspiration, the guiding light for WTF Next was social justice worker and writer adrienne maree brown, whose book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds offers a set of practical strategies for building towards social justice. She suggests as an operating principle this key question: “What are the root problems in my community, and what do deep, foundational, rooted solutions look like?” As you might have guessed from the first paragraph, I see the theatre sector’s root problem as racist, ableist, patriarchal capitalism, and believe solutions look, at least in part, like a different way of gathering and talking together, in a space that works actively against replicating capitalism’s hierarchies.

That meant WTF Next would need to be accessible – and because I know almost nothing about access (a condition of socialised ableism), I had some quick learning to do. For instance, from Jo Verrent of Unlimited I learned that it’s not enough to offer BSL interpretation: for the hard of hearing, captions are needed. From interpreter Anna Kitson and theatre-maker Chisato Minamimura I learned that keeping cameras off supports deaf people to find their interpreters. From theatre-maker Lisette Auton I learned that there are some neuro-divergent people who experience a kind of vertigo on zoom, triggered by the flickering movements of the yellow frame; from Annie I learned that no matter what time a zoom is scheduled, life responsibilities will clash with it. And so accessibility would need to extend to contributions via email, and shared notes summarising each conversation. (Lisette has written a beautiful document looking at all this more expansively.)

Arguably, this work towards inclusion was undermined by the fact that I didn’t announce these events publicly, but made personal invitations to people whose email addresses happened to be in my inbox – not just independent artists and producers but venue staff too. On the plus side, each of those 200 people was repeatedly invited to pass it on, meaning that the invite list was up at 350 people by the beginning of July. That’s a big number, but these were comparatively intimate gatherings: 80 people at the largest, 30 at the smallest. And my instinct was to make them more intimate still, using breakout rooms to keep conversation groups between five and ten people – small enough for everyone to be heard.

As well as accessibility, I wanted WTF Next to be characterised by transparency: honesty in talking about the process, what did and didn’t work, and all the mistakes along the way. (Another beautiful principle of Emergent Strategy: “Never a failure, always a lesson.”) Everyone who sent me feedback after a gathering became an informal collaborator, leading me to slow down, schedule more time for the breakout conversations to unfold, and recognise that I hadn’t considered the impact that the murder of George Floyd was having on people around me (a condition of socialised racism). Calling a space non-hierarchical isn’t enough: consistent, deliberate, active work is needed to stop whiteness remaining stealthily dominant. Acknowledging that this is collective work, I began to invite paid facilitators to host each breakout room, not to eradicate discomfort but to hold it with kindness and bravery.

I’m going to pause here to be transparent about money: although WTF Next was unpaid work for me, it didn’t feel right that it should be for anyone else. Of course a lot of other work on it was voluntary – all the people who shared notes or minutes, for instance, did so for the good of the public record – but where people were specifically commissioned to do a particular job, not just BSL interpretation but co-hosting or looking after backstage tech, I wanted them to be paid. So they were, from my own bank account. I’m aware that this looks like the same privilege, the power of investment, that gives wealthy people disproportionate access to this sector, making it harder for people of working-class backgrounds (let alone benefit, criminal or under- class) to make headway in it. But I hope the commitment to pay demonstrated something else: a belief in the imperative to redistribute wealth, and that anyone living in financial security is responsible for that.

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Wealth redistribution came up a lot over the course of WTF Next, alongside a host of other structural, interpersonal and individual changes that would result in a radical overhaul of the sector. An indexed set of public records is available online, including summaries of each discussion alongside the budget and notes on inclusion, so what follows are some synthesised highlights, key points that feel essential to draw out and bring to wider attention. (There’s also a filmed version of these highlights, recorded with BSL interpreter Lauren Lister.)

Each conversation was themed and co-hosted by another artist or cultural worker, whose introduction offered a number of avenues for discussion. With Tanuja Amarasuriya, of the Bristol-based company Sleepdogs, we thought about speaking honestly, thinking with generosity and dreaming transformatively; from that conversation emerged the themes of the next three. With Pelin Başaran, a programmer at Contact Theatre in Manchester, we talked about care and how it is given, received, made salient or ignored. Choreographer Pauline Mayers turned our attention to competition, drawing a line through history from the hierarchical systems that underpinned the slave trade to the workings of status in the sector today. And with emerging artist Toni-Dee Paul we contemplated what a more open and honest engagement with people’s mental and physical needs might entail, and how it would require all of us to slow down, not least in this work of rethinking or de-building, to open up space for people who are vulnerable and easily excluded.

Most of the thoughts that follow can be attributed to someone who attended, but all have been filtered through my own perspective in the process of collating and editing. Some might be read as speculation, some as suggestion, many as demand. I read them through the lens of these questions, also shared by a participant: “Do we need permission? Who are we waiting for permission from? And why? Do we need to make everyone in the sector change in order for us to change?”

Institutional change

Static, top-down power structures and financial hierarchies are major obstacles to any sense of common purpose or meaningful change. This is a chance to look at the redistribution of wealth within arts and culture. This will involve radical listening. While it is a long-term aim, we need to find ways of freeing up the time of some people immediately to work on this. The Freelance Task Force feels like a beginning.

How can we strive towards self-organising systems, moving outside of a structure you know isn’t working? We should be led by the most vulnerable. Allow the organisations, institutions and systems to die / fall away. There may be sadness – acknowledge that. If people have needs met they have the capacity to come together in new configurations and create new organisations and systems.

Funding change

Taking care and pastoral care are part of the artistic process but not always on the balance sheet in terms of time/money. DCMS needs to understand the theatre ecology and invest in us. We need to be political here and put pressure on. Access costs should be a requirement of ACE funding, not an option. Can we activate care as a competency?

Universal Basic Income, or some sense of financial security, is needed so that the scrapping for small liveable wages that feels embedded in the system is reduced. Not just for theatre-workers – for everyone.

Competition and the status of working in theatre

Artists need to not be in competition. Can we let go of being the special people and the status of being artists? If we’re not in competition and being held to that need to make income, what space would we be able to offer to our communities and how can we let those communities have more say in what gets put on stages? Perhaps the opposite of competition is care?

The need for validation – to be ‘seen’ not only by others but also by institutions – keeps artists in a perpetual carousel of project after project, and exacerbates the inaccessibility of working in the arts for people who are ill, disabled, have caring commitments, etc. Making less work, over longer periods of time, might open the field wider.

Or: think hyperlocal. Make some theatre for your neighbour. Make some theatre for your street. We don’t have to be reliant on venues to provide everything. Art isn’t going to disappear if the sector falls under. Art will still happen. You know that the system is failing. So why don’t we just leave it alone? Why not make it not about money?

Decentralising power and making way

It’s one thing saying: we want to hear everyone’s voices. In order to make space, people literally have to give up their position – that’s a much more uncomfortable conversation. If you’re someone who falls into a privileged group, in order for your values to be implemented in these spaces, it might mean losing power, opportunities, etc. If you’re not willing to accept and embrace the reality of that, do you really believe in what you think you do?

Withdrawal or saying no includes: saying no to opportunities, support or involvement with institutions and funding bodies which reinforce models of capitalism and competition; those with more stepping aside. What happens when we relinquish something with an intention and that space is filled not in the way we intended or hoped? It’s too simplistic to try and adopt just one strategy (eg withdrawal): the situation deserves a more nuanced approach or multiple strategies. What kind of training could be undertaken in order to help here? What other worlds or industries could we look to to find this training?

Cooperation and care

Who defines who needs care? How can people be open about their own needs, even recognise them to articulate them? What would an organisation or venue’s checklist of care look like? What are venues and organisations caring FOR?

A culture of radical generosity is urgently needed – one that could become habitual and sustain us into the recovery period and beyond. It needs to start with a simple question: what resources do I/we have? How can I/we share them?

Why can’t we all earn a median wage instead of a few at the top earning so much and loads at the bottom earning so little? To give care we have to give up privileging.

To discuss care is also to discuss tangible structural workers rights. Enable the dignity and comfort of all people, not just in the arts. Does theatre organising need to go in the backseat now? How might artists connect with other precarious workers to build a world that pays people properly?

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While putting this together I read Creating New Futures, a document of “working guidelines for ethics and equity” put together by a group of dance and performance makers and programmers in the US that covers some similar ground. At its heart is a pertinent question: “Caring and listening are not actionable items. How do we take them and get work done on them? What is actionable?” I built the first invitation for WTF Next around a similar question: what are the small, practical, possible actions – what adrienne maree brown calls “the next elegant step” – that might be discovered or plotted over the course of these conversations that could ensure progress, however incremental, is made towards change?

The kinds of change needed in the theatre sector – and society beyond that – are going to require time, (im)patience and unrelenting effort: not just for a few weird months while theatres are closed but for years ahead. And conversation will be the root of that work: to build trust and genuine allyship across a theatre sector more atomised than it likes to believe, and – more importantly – with the multitudes of people also living in states of precarity who might have long felt excluded by the arts. Caring and listening are not the totality of the work – but the work isn’t possible without them. And for me this is the work of theatre: not just the performance that tips the iceberg but the making of space, the hosting of conversation and the commitment to holding oneself accountable.

WTF Next also exposed the extent to which change needs to happen not only outwardly but inside. The values of capitalism are inevitably internalised, resulting in self-exploitation, faulty notions of success and failure, and working practices that not only exclude disabled people but preclude people who see themselves as non-disabled articulating their vulnerabilities and needs. Working in and around theatre often feels like spinning on a hamster wheel, terrified that if you fall off you’ll never find a space on it again. Of course there are ways in which the lack of rent caps and universal basic income demand that speed of movement, but there are other ways in which it’s a condition of venue’s and artists’ own relationships with productivity.

Toni-Dee Paul reflected this problem in her brilliant introduction to the fourth gathering, expressing her exasperation at the “reactionary” nature of so much rebuilding theatre work happening during the pandemic halt. “Everything seems to be about speed,” she noted. “Do it quickly, even though it is not rigorous. Do it fast, while we still have the momentum. Do it with haste, although it will be flawed.” The risk of this approach is that any resultant change will be insubstantial, shallow rooted. Quoting artist Selina Thompson, she warned: “Things built quickly are easy to dismantle.”

It’s partly to honour Toni-Dee’s thinking that WTF Next is now on pause until the autumn. There’s a fretful, self-questioning part of me that wonders whether it will still be needed when leaves start to fall. After all, other conversations have mushroomed since I sent that first invitation in the middle of May, some more open than others, many concerned with the possibility of remodelling the sector. Perhaps the answer lies in another pertinent quote from Creating New Futures: change comes about not with “a one-shot conversation but a road collectively being built. Each stage can come with objectives, goals, with opportunities for targeted discourse, questions about the management and distribution of resources and anchored agendas for next steps.” Beside that road I see a grassy verge, a place of spiderwebs and wild flowers in which to be not just productive but unproductive – antithetical to the visible, quantifiable activity capitalism (and theatre) ordinarily demands. It’s on that verge that WTF Next makes its offer.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

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