Sam Swann discusses how theatre is owned, funded and influenced by elites, and calls for a far more challenging, radical and diverse theatre
Most theatres have fundraising events for donors, maybe BP, maybe Goldman Sachs, and other assorted wealthy individuals to booze and schmooze with the theatre’s staff. They donate their monies, accrue a few anecdotes to boast to their friends about, maybe avoid some tax, and ask all those vital and riveting questions like “how do you learn all those lines?” The theatre’s workers are often warned about how essential and important these people are. We must be nice to them. They pay our wages.
So is it possible for theatre workers to use their art to challenge the class that pays their wages? Can the upper echelons who own and greatly influence the forces of theatre production be effectively challenged in the very buildings they control?
I would say no. Work in establishment institutions is limited in three main ways: censorship; self-censorship; and a systemic filtering out of people who are not amenable to reproducing theatre for the bourgeoisie.
Okay so censorship. In our not-too-distant past there has been active censorship by this “cultivated elite”. In his book Stage Blood, Michael Blakemore describes the establishment of the National Theatre (NT) as dependent on “an extensive network of supporters in high places… With their easy access to business and the world of money, to government and the law, these were the sort of people theatre boards like to attract.”
Blakemore describes Kenneth Tynan, the NT’s literary manager having “his wings clipped by the Theatre Board”. Tynan was extremely keen on programming Rolf Hochhuth’s play “Soldiers, which dealt with the carpet bombing of German cities during the war.” But the theatre’s Chairman, Lord Chandos, considered it “to be a slur on the memory of his friend Winston Churchill.” Despite the support of Artistic Director Laurence Olivier, the board unanimously turned the play down, and Ken was “demoted and obliged to share his responsibilities with a new member of staff.”
What about self-censorship?
Individuals aware of their benefactors often won’t wait to be censored, altering their work to make sure that it is ‘fundable’. Many young creatives are asked by their drama schools or employers to wine and dine donors. “When starting out,” Andrew Whyment, a director who has worked on the fringe, for drama schools, and established theatres told me, “fresh out of uni, I put some of my taste and instinct on ice. And when considering ideas thought ‘is this going to be something rich people will fund or programme?’”
Systemic filtering though?
Often there is no need for self-censorship however. We can follow a similar line of argument to that used by the anarchist intellectual Noam Chomsky in 1996 when he was interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
Chomsky suggests that the majority of journalists think that theirs “is a crusading profession, ‘we stand up against power’. A very self-serving view.” Chomsky argues that they hold this “self-serving view” despite the fact that “the media is a sham”, owned by wealthy men who run their institutions in their own interests.
Marr misinterprets Chomsky, asking him “how can you know that I’m self-censoring?”
Chomsky replies, “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. What I’m saying is that if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
Theatre clearly has glaring parallels here. Often self-servingly seen as a noble art in which “truth” is paramount, despite the fact that the industry mostly churns out old plays for old rich people. It is no surprise that the theatre is dominated by privately and Oxbridgely educated white guys. Amenable, charming and untroubling for the donors. This is the theatre successfully reproducing itself.
Some work is radical though. What about that?
Even when work gives the appearance of radicalism, its rarity and novelty can be tolerated and probably enjoyed by the establishment, as Franca Rame, the Marxist feminist theatre maker noted in 1969:
We had realised that, despite the hostilities of a few, obtuse reactionaries, the high bourgeoisie reacted to our ‘spankings’ almost with pleasure. Masochists? No, without us realising it, we were helping their digestion. Our ‘whipping’ boosted their blood circulation, like some good birching after a refreshing sauna... This bourgeoisie did not mind our criticism, no matter how pitiless it had become… but only so long as the exposure of their ‘vices’ occurred exclusively within the structures that they controlled.
So what is to be done?
Though Franca Rame’s point might seem nihilistic, we just need to make sure we focus our energy in more effective ways. Theatre is really fun to make, and that’s a fantastic reason to do it, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking we are challenging the powerful rather than “boosting their blood circulation”. The most effective ways for us to make real the structural changes we want, will be through our targeted collective efforts as workers and activists.
We need to change who owns, influences, dominates, participates and feels comfortable in our theatre spaces. I think there are two strands to this project.
One: Funding and Ownership
We need alternative models of funding and ownership, while divesting our industry of dirty money, so that we are no longer answerable to a small number of wealthy individuals for our work to exist. Exciting work has already been done on this by The Movement for Cultural Democracy, which came out of The World Transformed festival in 2017.
Their recent manifesto outlines radical redistribution of funding and resources to arts and cultural institutions, ensuring that fully transparent and accountable decision-making is at as local level as possible. This would mean decentralising power from London, and rejuvenating long-neglected regions. The manifesto also suggests that local residents and workers have agency over every public cultural institution by introducing community and trade union representation onto their independent boards.
They also insist that cultural institutions only receive public funding if they are free from sponsorship by “unethical corporate interests”. It is an embarrassment to our community that BP and other fossil fuel companies get to appear as philanthropists, with climate change wreaking havoc in the global south, and threatening further global devastation in the near future.
And when it comes to public funding for the arts, we need to shout about the fact that this country is a sham. Arts Council England’s (ACE) total budget is comparable to the city of Berlin’s culture budget. Yes, you read that correctly. One German city’s culture budget is approximately equal to ACE’s total budget. Like I said: a sham. We need to demand a drastic increase in funding, rather than relentlessly competing for scraps.
Two: Workforce reform
The other strand of this project is transforming our workforce so that it better represents our societies. This requires us to see our industry as part of a greater political ecology. So that we can see a lack of diversity as a problem forged outside of the theatre – due to the systemic economic oppression of working-class people, disproportionately people of colour, disproportionately women – rather than this being solely the fault of gatekeepers.
We need to stop using a definition of class as merely “having an accent” or as a dogwhistle codeword for “white working class” (see Ash Sarkar’s piece ‘The Working Class Isn’t As White As Some Would Like You To Think’), and instead talk about class as your material conditions, access to capital, financial precarity etc. The things that determine how soon you might be forced to quit when work is too scarce, or whether you would even dream of embarking on such a precarious line of work in the first place.
Working-class underrepresentation won’t be solved by getting a few more working-class people into the industry while leaving the structural barriers to entry and longevity unchanged. Currently only 2% of actors make a living from acting (and this includes TV, film, radio, adverts etc), and without a dramatic increase in funding it is unlikely to go much higher than that.
Theatre-maker Mike Bradwell said that in the 1970s the biggest funder of the arts was not the Arts Council, but the dole. Bradwell and his gang managed to set up Hull Truck theatre company while on benefits, because the much-more-generous and much-less-sanctioned dole meant they didn’t have to work other jobs, or starve to make their work.
With half of most people’s pay packets going on rent, we should be calling on our unions and political parties to have a strong policy on rent caps, a huge increase in housebuilding, expanded tenants’ rights, and resistance to gentrification. We should be demanding increased benefits and an end to DWP sanctions, as well as an increased and mandatory Living Wage for all.
These far-reaching struggles to reduce living costs and improve the material conditions of the majority of people, could be our means to a drastically more diverse theatre. We might have theatre spaces owned by the many rather than the few, with a representative workforce, who, with reduced living costs would have a greater chance to imagine, to write, to devise, rather than only those with the luxury of financial security. We might be able to produce more work that can entertain and galvanise communities, rather than provide “some good birching” for the bourgeoisie. Our work might be more radical, and more confrontational with the forces of wealth and privilege that have so far limited or shut down its potency.
There is a lot to be done. No more tinkering!
Sam is an actor and sits on Equity’s Young Members Committee. He is one of the organisers of A Good Night Out Theatre Workers Reading Group (@AGoodNightOutRG) which meets on the second Sunday of the month in London.