By freelance theatre-maker and consultant, Danny Braverman
The lovely people at Improbable Theatre have been producing 'Devoted and Disgruntled', an Open Space event, for six years now. The question is more or less the same every time: what should be done about theatre in the UK? As it's an Open Space event, the power is handed over to the gathering. It's up to those of us who show up to decide what will be discussed, how the conversation will progress and to take responsibility for what happens next.
I have to confess that whenever I've attended, I get frustrated more by those who aren't there than by those who are. Notable by their absence, or rather by their lack of significant presence: commercial producers; the RSC and the National Theatre; producing theatres; Black and Asian people; and disabled people. It would be unfair to say that the event is only touring companies, freelancers and the 'fringe' (whatever that is) talking to itself – but it’s almost that. It’s certainly not the genuine cross section of the theatre community I’d love to see under one roof.
The subjects covered this year ranged from a few bordering on the trivial (“Impro without cock jokes” anyone?) to a whole range of important and pressing subjects. Personally, I was glad to see the following discussed:
• Autism and theatre
• Class issues, including ticket prices and working-class depiction
• Diversity – broadly and narrowly
• Political theatre
• Theatre and health, dementia, Alzheimers
• Women and theatre
• Young people’s theatre
Our genial facilitator was the ever-playful Phelim McDermott, who as usual reminded the throng that, unlike more conventional conferences, it's not essential for attendees to stick out every discussion to the bitter end. You are encouraged to be a bee (cross-pollinating ideas) or even a butterfly (fluttering about looking pretty, having interactions on the margin). I was certainly in the mood to be fluttering, but was definitely in the musty top-age quartile, so relaxed into my role as a moth, flitting in an uncoordinated way searching out light. And I found some. By accident, of course.
In Open Space we're encouraged to expect the unexpected. It comes across a bit new-agey, but actually the charm of D&D is that it's a refreshing antidote to the compulsion culture and death-by-Powerpoint of most professional forums. So, I spent the best part of two days chatting and musing. I have come away without any answers or, thank God, an action plan. I have been thinking, though. Uppermost in my mind has been the notion of theatre genealogy.
1. A line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor: “combing through the birth records and genealogies”.
2. The study and tracing of lines of descent or development
The room, an echoey chamber used for boxing bouts, was full of bright young things, all eager and, mercifully, thinking a bit about politics. It seems the achingly hip art-for-art sake squad, focusing their energy and venom on the evils of 'narrative', are in retreat. There seems to be a newfound political engagement: a positive paralleling the Occupy Movement coming out of our new age of austerity. I have to confess that at the beginning of the weekend, I found myself wincing every time the bright-eyed evangelised about a wonderful innovation, that in truth was a commonplace for community and Theatre in Education (TIE) companies a quarter of a century ago. But I soon realised that that was my inner-Scrooge taking over. What's important is that those of us now a bit longer in the tooth point to a tradition; it's OK and actually inspiring to be part of … whisper it … a movement.
The day after D&D, I was prepping to run a workshop on Drama and Citizenship. I blew the dust off my own book, Playing a Part: drama and citizenship. I'd quite forgotten that Philip Hedley, my old boss at Theatre Royal Stratford East, had written a lovely foreword. Philip had, as is his habit, pointed to the fact that my work with young people was carrying on the proud tradition of Joan Littlewood. Yes, in terms of theatre genealogy, I am Joan's grandson! That's a humbling thought.
This led me to think about all my other theatre parents, godparents, aunties, uncles and cousins; distant and not-so-distant. I remember being inspired by John McGrath of 7:84 Theatre visiting Birmingham when I was a student and talking about popular socialist theatre; the TIE pioneers who confronted, harangued and encouraged at Standing Conference on Young People’s Theatre conferences (sadly, no longer standing); and how I floated curiously into a workshop in 1985 run by Augusto Boal and found out about Forum Theatre from its pioneer. Of course, we learn from peers and, sometimes uncomfortably, from the fresh approaches of emerging artists too – this is not just about the wisdom of elders. However, there is a huge value from learning from people who’ve been round the block a few times. As much as anything, we learn from mistakes. As someone at D&D pointed out, the most valuable book is not the one that trumpets successes, but the case studies of catastrophic failures.
As the weekend progressed, my disposition shifted from cynicism to cautious hope. The cause for my optimism was to be in an environment where the experience I’ve accrued was useful. When a young theatre-maker talked about bi-lingual work in Bengali and English I could point her towards the pioneering work at the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre 20-odd years ago.
“Who knew?” She said.
“A few”, I said “and here’s where you may find them”.
Maybe I’ll have ended up putting her in touch with a theatre aunty she never knew.
So, for those people who didn’t turn up, you denied the rest of us valuable conversations across and between theatre generations. I would have liked to witness disabled artists discussing “do we need the RSC?” - as well as someone from the RSC; both were absent from the feast.
D&D was a bit like being at a big wedding where relatives are talked about, but not there to be part of the celebrations. And like the family wedding, there would, of course, be unease when cultures clash. But, I’m attracted to the prospect of battling with difference within the extended theatre family – and isn’t discomfort ultimately essential to learning and creativity?