Could the theatre industry become a vehicle for radical politics?

With spaces like The World Transformed, this future is closer than we might think.

Ooh this is an exciting time. A time in which the Tories are crumbling under the weight of their own bigotry, the Marxist power boi John McDonnell is discussing the practicalities of being both in and against the state, and a literal communist is proclaiming herself literally a communist on national television. The times they have a-changed.

And change is a-coming in the theatre too.

In the theatre, we’ve seen big shifts in mainstream discourse around gender, race and class over the last decade. This has undoubtedly been down to both shifts in wider society and in no small part because of organisations like Act For Change, ERA 50:50, OpenDoor, and more recently the Diversity School. From protests outside the Print Room against “yellowface” in the casting of In The Depths Of Love; to #NoGreyArea at the Royal Court discussing the impact and practical steps post-#MeToo; to Arts Council England condemning Sir Trevor Nunn’s all-white production of The War Of The Roses as “whitewashing history”; to the uproar over Q–tin L–ts and his explicitly racist criticism of the RSC’s casting of The Fantastic Follies Of Mrs Rich; to the bubbling conversations about class and its implications for the industry. The Overton window is not where it was.

However, this (albeit limited) progress is not due to an inherently progressive politics embedded in the theatre industry’s structures, nor down to the moral fortitude of all the industry’s participants - indeed the increase in conversations between white men about how people of colour are taking their jobs is a worrying development.

So who takes on the burden of shifting the discourse? People of colour, women, disabled people, working class people. Of course. Those who are most often overlooked, underrepresented or even punished for their “being difficult”. Those who are too often told to be grateful for their being involved at all. As if the fact they made it through this “leaky pipeline” of an industry was solely down to the benevolence of liberal-minded decision-makers.

The leaky pipeline

The ‘leaky pipeline’ refers to the fact that working class artists tend to disappear from the industry at a much higher rate than their middle class counterparts. This phenomenon “is worse for working class women and working class BAME individuals and those with disabilities.”

That there, from the Labour Party’s Acting Up report, unleashed an almighty gasp of “no shit, Sherlock” from anyone who had ever thought about it.

But the stats are still pretty grim reading, if unsurprising. MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin noted that just “16% of actors come from a working class background” compared to 33% of the wider population. Whereas the privately educated are hugely overrepresented: despite only 6.5% of the UK being privately educated, 26.1% of actors have been. They also found that “just 7% of the theatre and performing arts workforce were from BAME backgrounds”, which is even worse when you consider the industry’s London-centricity - 40% of the capital’s population are people of colour.

The industry isn’t doing as well as it might like to think.

Given this is the state of affairs, can theatre be a vehicle for radical politics and not just a mouthpiece for ineffective white middle class liberal wish-wash? Can we possibly imagine a great overhaul where working class people (a group that is not as white as some would like you to think) are not merely gifted tokenistic participation, but actually dominate the industry?

Firstly we should consider the qualities of the current white middle class dominance.

The theatre is dominated by middle class structures and cultures

Of course, the state we are in is historically contingent. There is nothing inherently middle class about telling stories. It does not have to be this way. But right now, economic inequality and the precarity of the work has such a significant impact on who can afford to make it into the industry and stay in it. And it is not just economic, either. It is also about whose tastes we serve, and how institutions reproduce the tastes of those who create and maintain them.

After the Second World War, the intellectual ancestors of our current establishment got their hands on CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) which had been created to take art and entertainment to people across Britain to boost public morale during the war. Popular cultural events thrived. Playwright Hassan Mahamdallie describes the impressive popularity of the dance hall at the time: “in 1939 [the Mecca dancehall chain] took over the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, renovated it and turned it into a Mecca dance hall for the duration of the war, entertaining 1,500 dancers every night.” However, after the war, lauded economist John Maynard Keynes ensured the venue returned to opera and ballet, using his political influence to secure a Treasury grant to fit it out. An opportunity to continue with the momentum of the cultural pursuits of the working class was scuppered because of the tastes of an economist. CEMA was turned into the Arts Council by Keynes and those he influenced in government, giving permanent funding to the Opera House and other London-based purveyors of the ‘fine arts’.

The Arts Council was created as a vehicle for the taste of a “cultivated elite” from its inception. Keynes was also intent on turning “London into a great artistic metropolis”. It would be hard to argue that his dream has not become a reality. Now, the industry is so London-centric that 43% of Arts Council England’s (ACE) theatre funding goes to the capital (to predominantly middle class demographics) while only 24% of England’s population lives in the metropolitan area.

Even when funding is distributed outside of London, it is focused very clearly on its middle class audience. Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) receives around 16% of ACE’s theatre funding. Some might like to argue that Shakespeare’s work is not middle class and is accessible to everyone (a debate for another time) but our focus on “the text, the text, the text” as the most sacred element of theatre prioritises the academic over the visceral (despite how much the word “visceral” is thrown around in theatrical circles). It means that people say, without irony, “I understood every word” about a well-enunciated production of a Shakespeare (imagine having the same low bar when going to the cinema). Very little is said about the plot, the content, the characters, whether the production provided a transformative experience, or whether it was fun - because to understand the ancient language is THE thing. It marks your cleverness from those who do not understand. Bourgeois much?

In the Thatcher years, arts funding subtly shifted from facilitating middle class culture to treating it as a product to consume, not a culture to partake in and shape. The focus shifts to enshrining British culture as a valuable export or tourist attraction. In 1985, the Arts Council chairman of the time, William Rees-Mogg (father of Jacob) said “the arts are to British tourism what the sun is to Spain.” Is it any wonder that the RSC’s product (Shakespeare, obviously) is funded so disproportionately? It’s no surprise that classics and revivals continue to be so prevalent, as well as costume dramas on screen. Not only is our theatre middle-class in heritage, it has so often been a saleable impression of that heritage to be sold to tourists.

The middle class has dominated the game for a long old time. So is there any radical potential in the theatre?

The radical potential

The growing popularity of the diversity cause makes the industry ripe for radical overhaul. But we cannot be complacent. As it currently is, the theatre will try to merely appropriate a few of the least troublesome values, or the language of progressive movements. It will make some concessions to dull the voices of the “difficult people”, rather than take on and expand on those values and make them part of its very fabric. This is, of course, what institutions do. They seek to reproduce themselves, and find or make participants in their own image.

But there are radical elemental components to theatre production. As Salford Community Theatre demonstrates, collaboration is essential to theatre-making, “moving away from neoliberal notions of individuality towards a sense of co-dependence on others to create action and change”. There’s the collective responsibility; the digging someone out of the shit when they’ve forgotten their lines; the joyous in-the-moment spontaneity of finding something new in the eyes of your fellow performer in a play you are performing for the hundredth time; the pride in the ephemeral collaborative work the collective has manifested into being; the discussions about the human condition. Anyone who has done am-dram knows the joy, the connections, the solidarity, the lifelong friends that are made during those processes.

Theatre’s radical potential is seemingly already realised at companies like The Big House, in which young people out of social care put on professional-quality shows, where they form connections and develop a sense of community and communal worth. Synergy Theatre and Clean Break put on productions in prisons with inmates, and outside with ex-prisoners in which the actors and stage management develop or enhance the pride in their community, seeing themselves anew in their ensemble. The high quality work produced by The Queen’s Yard Company, young people local to Hackney making boundary-pushing theatre discussing huge topics while entertaining their audience (their show You Do Not Have To Say Anything a nuanced look at people’s lived experience of police and state violence). There are the transformative experiences people have in places like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in which a huge city is physically and spiritually transformed for a month, social capital built, collaborations planned, the world put to rights. These elements are, or could very easily become radical depending on the conditions.

Of course, the greatest potential for radical change comes from outside the theatre. We need an abundance of work so that the elite can’t so easily keep its stranglehold on the hierarchies due to scarcity. We need genuinely affordable housing, the scrapping of tuition fees, an end to wage stagnation, an end to the stigma attached to benefits, strengthened trade unions, cheap (read nationalised) travel, Universal Basic Income, Universal Basic Services. These would very quickly have a significant material impact on those in the theatre industry living precarious existences, and perhaps more significantly on those for whom lack of resources means that a life in the theatre isn’t an option in the first place.

We could consider the municipal socialism of the revered Preston Model but for the arts. The Movement for Cultural Democracy’s manifesto suggests a democratically structured National Arts Fund to ensure that cultural funding is regionally and demographically distributed, rather than dictated by an unelected board imposing decisions from on high. And if theatre is to thrive under a democratically structured funding body, we will have to campaign to increase and empower the work of The Big Houses, the Clean Breaks, Synergys and Salford Community Theatres of our industry. And we have to put forward the idea that what we need is not a few more working-class voices, but working-class domination.

Yes, the left needs to try to dominate the elite institutions (much like it now dominates many of the structures of the Labour Party), but it should also be our goal to make them more democratic, more inclusive. While there are exciting developments in elite spaces like the Royal Court (Prime Time and Pigeons schools tours; Peckham: The Soap Opera), The Young Vic’s appointment of Kwarme Kwei-Armah (who has pledged a commitment to “community, joy and a young demographic” and told “people of colour, the main stage is for you”), we cannot rely on these institutions to transform the industry into a hotbed of intersectional working-class radicalism. We cannot wait for good artistic directors to come along and save theatre. This is a collective effort. We must push for this from outside and in, from the bottom to the top. We must aim to transform the institutions that already get so much public money, but also create new institutions with our radical objectives in their very fabric.


Overheard at #TWT2017: ‘I used to know what solidarity meant, now I know what it feels like’ — Roland Singer-Kingsmith

You wouldn’t have caught me making an impassioned defence of the radical potential of theatre this time last year. I was resigned to the fact that the theatre was an art form doomed to remain dominated by liberal reformist guff.

But at The World Transformed (the radical fringe festival of Labour Party Conference) last year I felt the optimism of a movement flexing its muscles; partied with people of all ages from across the country feeling the same sudden positivity after the decades of political cynicism; learnt about the history of the Arts Council and the radical proposition of a democratically structured National Arts Fund; and heard inspiring ideas put forward by fellow participants, including seeing culture as not just the fine art of the “cultivated elite” but something we might find “at the football ground, the community centre, the newsagent, the hospital, the school”, through boxing, gaming, and reality television. Our movement can inspire people, reveal the possible thought previously impossible, name our obstacles, unveil the areas that are ripe for radical takeover.

At The World Transformed, we can make those imaginative leaps with comrades. We can flesh out ideas and nourish the germs of future policies or actively create them in the here-and-now. We can dream up new possibilities and have our eyes opened to the real practical steps to our utopias.

It is an exciting time - change is coming.

But we cannot hope that this happens automatically. We have to get involved. We need to imagine, invent and manufacture our future. The World Transformed is the fertile ground in which even the theatre industry could discover and rediscover its radical potential.

Theatre-makers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your precarity.