Features Catherine's Comments Published 1 August 2012

For What It’s Worth

How do we value theatre?

Catherine Love

At the V&A’s recent conference on Subsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship, there was a lot of talk about value. Value in terms of the worth we assign to theatre and performance as life-enriching forms of culture, but also value in its cold, unimaginative, starkly monetary understanding. To put it bluntly, there isn’t much cash around right now.

As a result, theatremakers are under increasing pressure to prove just why they deserve that cash. And at a time when many artists are at pains to demonstrate the worth of their output using the language of economics – an arguably misguided endeavour whose dangers are eloquently revealed in Daniel Bye’s performance lecture The Price of Everything – there is another way in which theatre can be considered worthwhile in a sense that speaks to governments; a non-monetary sense, but also non-ephemeral, non-elusive, more concrete.

This way is through social engagement and outreach, which has grown from the alternative and often distinctly socialist community theatre projects of the 1960s and 70s to the wide proliferation of schemes and workshops in disadvantaged areas today, largely born from the hunger for diversity and authenticity that was driven by the new writing explosion in the last two decades. Theatre as an instrument for change, on both a personal and a community-wide scale, has earned recognition.

It is an odd and slightly contradictory development, however, that this once radical way of inspiring and changing communities is now a bargaining chip in the perpetual struggle for state funding. Of course, unlike highly subjective arguments of aesthetic or intellectual significance, the advantage that outreach has is its ability – however fallible that may be – to be measured. When funding is spread thin, it’s easy to see why work that produces a tangible outcome within a community might have an edge.

But if this model of accruing value like points on a chart becomes a rigid and institutionalised model of attaining funding, not only does theatre’s vital role as a positive force within local communities risk becoming just another box to tick; theatre itself could conceivably reach a place in which it is considered little more than a vehicle for other, more solid outcomes, a place in which artistic innovation and excellence is side-lined. This is not an argument for the primacy of theatre’s artistic intentions over its outreach function or vice versa, but rather a tentative expression of concern that the essence of each is in danger of being elided in the process of the two being inextricably meshed together in the quest for value.

Never having personally filled out a funding application or decided on a funding outcome, I’m in a poor position to give this concern an intelligent, thorough exploration. But as a critic, or even just as an audience member, perhaps there is another way to look at this not always comfortable collision of artistic and altruistic intentions.

Aside from the discussions sparked at the V&A, another experience that prompted such thoughts was that of watching Rimini Protokoll’s 100% London, programmed as part of LIFT 2012 and presented at the Hackney Empire. The concept of the piece was, essentially, a living survey, a breathing pie-chart. Flipping the dubious wisdom of statistics on its head, Rimini Protokoll recruited 100 people based on factors such as age, gender and ethnicity to represent a cross-section of modern London and put those 100 individuals on a stage, where they answered questions ranging from the revealing to the banal.

It was, at moments, a startling piece of theatre. At one point, squeezed into the set’s large green circle and filmed from above, the performers mimed their activities at different times of day, a writhing portrait of a city that never rests. Yet as a whole – at least for me – it didn’t quite work, for reasons I won’t dissect here. Do its theatrical failings, however, make it any less of a success as a project bringing together a diverse range of individuals, many of whom might not normally come in contact with theatre, or as a fascinating document of our capital city?

The answer to that is a resounding no. It had value – this increasingly loaded word – to all the participants whose lives it touched, a value that would not be diminished by an observation of its flaws. But I wonder how much the foregrounding of its creation influenced its reception. These performers were very pointedly labelled as “ordinary people”; not even delving into the slightly problematic fact that a couple were also actors by profession, how differently might I or anyone else have felt if they were then unveiled as conspirators in some elaborate theatrical hoax? How would this once again shift the show’s perceived value?

In the midst of these whirling, unresolved thoughts about theatre and value, Theatre Delicatessen’s Bush Bazaar swaggered onto the scene. This new buffet of theatre and performance, running for the next three weeks at the Bush, asks theatregoers to barter for the work they see, deciding how much of their cash to part with in order to watch various proffered performances. In essence, the show places an explicit monetary value on something in order to implicitly interrogate that relationship between art and money.

This concept made me ask questions of myself. As someone who rarely pays to see theatre, what value do I place on the work that I see? Might critics, as some have suggested, state how much they would pay for a piece of theatre as an alternative to the much-maligned star rating? I have an automatic and fairly violent aversion to such an idea as a restrictive and reductive pinning of theatre to a capitalist structure of worth that the work itself often seeks to eschew. But at the same time, the realist in me recognises that for most theatregoers price is one of the first and perhaps main considerations, and one that cannot just be swept aside.

Trapped within these fairly rigid arguments and bouncing uncomfortably between the opposing walls, it was something of a relief to read another view on the subject. In response to the current debate about You Me Bum Bum Train’s failure to pay its performers, Andy Field implored artists to “imagine a situation in which we can truly celebrate the potential complexities and contradictions in the different kinds of value that we might ascribe to what we do”. In other words, value needn’t be a hierarchy or an either-or situation, and in fact such a situation is only conforming to the prescriptions of the arts’ detractors.

Reading Field’s blog, I also realised something else. Recently, I seem to be almost incapable of writing or indeed thinking about theatre without somehow considering capitalism in the process – this column being a case in point. And perhaps that’s part of the problem. Until we stop connecting the two, even if that connection comes in the form of an effort on the part of theatre to move outside of capitalism, this slippery notion of value that I keep returning to will forever be grounded in the idea of monetary or otherwise tangible exchanges.

I was originally planning to conclude on the closing note of Robert Hewison’s key note speech at the conference, calling for a reconnection with the idea that theatre has cultural value in and of itself and not just in the social or economic rewards it reaps. But now, as valid as Hewison’s plea was, I think that Field’s imaginings are a more appropriate way to depart. Hoping for a conversation, he asks his readers to imagine that his blog has a question mark at the end. I ask you to do the same.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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