Out & About

Feature in Issue 20-1 | Spring 2008

I have to admit that come winter I would often rather stay in than venture out. Even, dare I say, the lure of bad telly can tempt me away from theatre. It’s a time for creature comforts and taking stock. Out and About becomes stay home and tune in. This winter gone has been no exception, made more severe by the Arts Council recommendations to cut 195 regularly-funded companies from their portfolio. I am disappointed to have to report that Total Theatre is one of them.

Our letter arrived on 13 December casting a shadow of gloom over the traditionally cheerful Christmas period. Flurries of phone calls followed as many tried to ascertain who else had had their lives and livelihoods threatened. This was made more painful in the knowledge that some companies were being offered substantial uplifts and new artists are being brought into the Arts Council fold. In principle this is great news, but nobody knew exactly who was being affected and the lucky ones have largely hidden their joy. Once again the artists were left in a school yard playing Chinese whispers while the ‘teachers’ stayed safe indoors tucked up and unavailable with their knowledge.

I could rant on (as I and many others have at numerous meetings and functions) about the appalling decision-making process, about the intrinsic lack of respect for artists, about how little Arts Council England seem to understand public relations and how badly the ensuing media coverage reflects on both their actions and the arts community more widely as this drama is played out in public.. And in Total Theatre’s case, about how little interest they have taken in the process of renewal we have instigated.

Instead, here is part of our response to ACE:

‘We are particularly disappointed that ACE has not formally engaged in our process to change direction embarked upon by Total Theatre in 2007. We have repeatedly acknowledged our failure to manage a particularly difficult situation in 2005/6 but took decisive action in February 2007….

There has not been any formal response to the new ideas and radical change of direction that is emerging, and your recommendation appears to have been made without any consideration of these ideas. This is despite verbal assurances that the Arts Council understands that organisations have difficult years and that your primary interest is in innovative new ideas. We are curious to know why Arts Council England is not interested in retaining and developing Total Theatre Magazine and the Total Theatre Awards or exploring the role that this theatre development agency could play at a time when excellence is a key focus, when there is an identified need to develop new forms of, and platforms for, theatre criticism and our activity offers tremendous scope to develop excellence. Although you state that ‘Physical, visual and devised theatre is now well funded and understood within the portfolio’; we would argue that it is not well understood by the media or the public, particularly outside the cultural centres such as London, Manchester, etc.

Having undertaken a revision of the organisation, Total Theatre is in the middle of a valuable process and - despite the ACE proposal to disinvest - this process and the organisation will continue.’

Amidst all the sound and fury there has been too little talk about the process of change, how artists and arts companies find mechanisms for creative renewal. Almost every creative person can and will espouse the virtues of change; how it drives the work and is essential to new life and growth. So if there is need for the bushfire to cleanse and germinate, doesn’t that naturally imply some devastation? The questions are: Whose devastation? And by whose hand? Change implies unexpected situations and perhaps no-one can ever be truly empowered and ready for it.

Luckily Total Theatre has engaged in a process, expecting unpredictable outcomes and opportunities that will help us transform. The good news is that there is a future and through this painful process, we will overcome.

Pippa Bailey is creative director of Total Theatre, the UK development agency for contemporary theatre. For further updates on the future of the organisation, see www.totaltheatre.org.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-1
p. 10