This idea of being outside, of being alternative, is one that continued to resurface throughout the conference. But while creeping around the edges of otherwise underexplored issues and ideas represents one of theatre’s great strengths, there was also a warning against accepting marginality. Robert Hewison’s data-chewing key note speech aired some bleak if perhaps unsurprising figures, revealing that more than 60% of the adult population in this country does not engage at all with theatre and performance. While audience sizes should not necessarily be the driving motivation of artists – creativity needs, as Peter Brook would argue, a few empty seats – Hewison’s point was that the theatre community must confront the uncomfortable questions that will be asked of it if it is to formulate answers.
One proposed answer, as already touched upon, is to engage directly with that 60%. Hewison’s interrogation of survey evidence also revealed that while the typical theatregoer profile ticks many of the expected boxes – well educated, white, middle-class – it is in fact an elusive concept of identity that drives engagement with theatre and performance more than any demographic factor. For people who regularly attend the theatre, that theatre both speaks to them and says something about them. Such a component of identity cannot be easily engendered by marketing campaigns or ticket price initiatives; it was argued that instead social interaction could be the key to producing this engagement.
London Bubble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Petherbridge put it nicely when he analogised the theatre as a restaurant. For all that the chefs might proclaim the deliciousness of their food, it will always seem not to be to some people’s taste, but once you invite people to cook, their engagement rockets. This engagement need not necessarily be with the entire creative process, but it was put forward by several different voices at the conference that theatre as an art form needs to be more sociable and to reach out to new audiences, whether this involves working directly with local communities or simply taking the work where it can be seen.
The conference also trudged back over well covered ground in the very British division between “new writing” and “new work” that continues to dominate current conversations and was in this context seen as a division that is holding back progress – a “poisonous binary”, as David Edgar emphatically put it. There was even an attempt during the final open discussion to move away from these familiar debates, with the playwrights on the panel themselves expressing exasperation with this seemingly evergreen topic.
This binary, however, is one that has been perpetuated by an odd, mutually influencing relationship between Arts Council policy and the dominant creative output of this country’s theatre, as explained by Edgar in referring to the split that occurred between text and performance based work during the new writing heyday of the 1990s. Now we have too many writers and a skewed perception of authorship, neither of which is a small problem and both of which contribute to the wider problems faced by theatre today.
So what, if anything, can we conclude? It was generally agreed that subsidy is still important, but playwright David Eldridge hit the heart of the issue succinctly when he said that “artists need to be willing to bite the hand that feeds them in a heartbeat” – whether that be the hand of the Arts Council, private philanthropy or corporate sponsorship.
There was also a feeling that to move forward we have to smash down barriers; barriers between text-based and performance-based work, between the falsely oppositional concepts of the avant-garde and the popular, between artists and audiences. And whatever we might need to smash to get there, we need to find ways to make sure that those artists are still there, occupying the liminal spaces, feeling at the edges of society, finding room in which to play.