The other problem with political theatre

COMMENT: It’s good to support political theatre. This should not turn into political vetting of theatre.

Last year, I went on record over the issue I have with most political theatre. Not the concept of political theatre – when done right, political theatre can be a huge vehicle for change – but my frustrations with how often it’s done badly. If your idea of political theatre is a play on a safe subject matter, where you know you can get a like-minded people to turn up and approve of what you say, it’s a relatively easy job. But if you are actually seeking to influence anyone – and entrenching views your audience already hold isn’t enough here – it’s a harder task. And most frustrating is that so many artists keep making the most basic mistakes: crap arguments, incomprehensibly abstract, or talking down to anyone you hope to get on your side.

However, you can ignore that here. For purposes of this article, I am talking about political theatre that gets the basics rights, with arguments that are not shit, incomprehensible, or condescending. I am now turning my attention to the next level up, and that’s the groups and theatres who support political theatre. The thing that got me thinking about this is Live Theatre’s new artistic director, Joe Douglas, seeking to bring in a lot more political theatre. Welcome though this is on the surface, it does raise some questions about vetting of work and artistic freedom. In the worst-case scenario, it could even be an issue of censorship.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear this is not meant to be a grilling of anyone in particular, and definitely not a grilling of Joe Douglas. I’ve met him and I like him, both as a person and someone who’s made an effort to open up Live Theatre to everyone and not just rely on inheriting an existing in-crowd. I haven’t seen his Live directorial debut yet, but Clear White Light sold out by press night so he must be doing something right. And I will stress that the questions I’m raising are genuinely meant as questions – I honestly don’t know what the answer to this is. But these are difficult questions that require difficult answers from someone.

Joe Douglas’s first noticeable initiative for a more political Live Theatre was the “Power Plays” from Theatre Uncut, described as “plays written in response to the centenary of women’s right to vote and the #metoo movement by dynamic female playwrights.” This was a popular event (I was interested in checking this out myself but my insanely-packed summer schedule thwarted me), but I’m going to have to ask the party-pooper question: “Which female playwrights?” This is an issue whenever you curate plays to give a voice to any demographic – are you really giving a voice to them, or are you cherry-picking the ones who back up what you want to say? The worst offenders have to be those men who claim to champion women’s voices but only those who agree with him, and get angry when women call him out for talking over them *cough* Graham Linehan *cough*. That doesn’t apply to Theatre Uncut, whose leadership are all women – but then Germaine Greer, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve are all women too, and you can bet they’d have a very different idea of what women’s voices are saying. I’ve picked those three as an example because I do not agree with them at all, but can you favour one group over the other without dictating which views women can and can’t express? That’s already treading on thin ice.

I’ll leave that debate for another day.*  Theatre Uncut may have an answer to these questions, and their answers might be good. Where Theatre Uncut definitely does takes sides, though, is on austerity. It’s pretty obvious from reading their own website, and I’m pretty sure that any play submitted that defends austerity, or downplays its impact, will go straight in the bin. But even if every single play if Theatre Uncut’s programme is vetted on supporting the artistic directors’ politics first and artistic merit second – so what? Theatre Uncut never claimed to be anything else, and it’s pretty much an open secret whose side they’re on. If you don’t like the side Theatre Uncut has picked, you have two options: either don’t watch it, or watch it and see if your own views stand up to a challenge. (Similarly, if Theatre Uncut’s plays support what you already believe, you have the choice to carry on hearing what you want to hear, or step out of this comfort zone and also hear some dissenting plays.) But at the end of the day, they’re not forcing you to listen, and they’re not stopping you listening to anyone else. If you don’t like what the Theatre Uncuts of the world are saying, the correct response is to say what they’re getting wrong. And if enough of you take exception to it, you’re quite at liberty to form your own company and express your own views.

(*: For what it’s worth, whilst I can’t speak for any women on this issue, there is a similar issue that’s narking me off. It’s this current wave of initiatives meant to give a voice to people with mental health issues, except they only seem interested in people they can use to portray all of us as victims – and anyone who objects to these generalisations gets ignored. But that debate can be left for another day too.)

However, major regional theatres are a different matter. Theatre Uncut can be as partisan as they like with their play selections, but partisan programming from an NPO-level theatre raises deeper questions. It’s not an issue that Live Theatre programmed Theatre Uncut one Sunday afternoon – you’re still free to support of challenge them as you wish –  but it may be an issue if Live and the other main theatres in Newcastle programme lots of political theatre expressing the same views. And, I have to say, I don’t see that much variety in the points of view being expressed. That doesn’t mean Live or any other theatres is being partisan – the political theatre they programme can only be as diverse as the political theatre companies they have available – but with so little understanding of how plays are programmed, it’s impossible to know what motives come into play.

This ties into a wider issue of regional theatre: a handful of artistic directors and programming directors have a massive amount of power in deciding what can be performed in venues of any standing. If artists feel they have to tailor their work to meet the artistic tastes of these few people, that should concern you. But once artists feel they have to tailor their work to the political approval of these few people, that should concern you a lot more – especially when it’s theatres who get the lion’s share of public funding. I want to see more funding of the arts as much as anyone; but if a handful of theatres control all the money, so that anyone not favoured by them is unable to compete, this is one of the few ways that funding can do more harm than good.

As I said, I can only raise questions here – I honestly don’t know how to answer them. Nevertheless, I can try to give some pointers to an answer. A lot of this overlaps with curation of theatre in general. An obvious solution, one might think, would be more openness over how programming/curation works. But that, I fear, is easier said than done. Theatres already provide information about programming policies, and, to be honest, I’m no wiser as to how they make their decisions. Not because I believe anyone’s deliberately holding things back, but because theatres are always in a state of flux, constantly changing how they operate faster than they can get it on record. But if there can be any extra transparency on how political theatre is programmed, that would be a good thing.

A wider solution – and again, this applies to all kinds of theatre, not just political theatre – might be about what happens to work that doesn’t get programmed. Regional theatres can get flack for being cultural/political gatekeepers, but that’s not nearly as much a problem if it can be shown that artists who don’t get supported or programmed stand a fair chance against those who do. In the north-east, it currently seems near-impossible to get on the map without the backing of at least one of Live Theatre, Northern Stage or Alphabetti, but I would love to be proven wrong. Creative ideas should have the chance to flourish with or without the help of a major theatre as long as there’s an audience who wants to see it – surely the same principle should apply to political ideas.

Alternatively, it might be the leaderships of the main producing theatres think it is their responsibility to engage in “curatorial activism” (to use the phrase favoured by a certain art gallery with a poor track record of reacting to disagreement), and do their best to ensure that only political theatre that influences society for the better gets an audiences. I am strongly of the opinion that theatres should not be acting as moral guardians of culture, and they have no business trying to squeeze out artists saying things they disapprove of. However, if any of them do see themselves as moral crusaders, so be it, but I’ll debate it on those terms. That means you are in a position of political power, and you should be fair game for scrutiny the same as any other politician. Tony Benn’s famous five questions are a good start: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and – yes, the most important one – how can we get rid of you?

Just to be clear, I don’t believe there’s any conspiracy going on, and I don’t believe artistic directors are actively trying to control what political theatre can and can’t make it to the stage. I would be very disappointed it turned out anyone was. The more likely explanation why the same messages keep appearing in their programmes goes back to what I said at the start: plays on safe subject matter where you know you can get like-minded people to turn up and approve of what you say. It is not clear how much this is encouraged by artistic directors and programmers, but the ultra-comfort zone of political theatre is to not have any ideas of your own, and just go along with what’s already popular to say. Worse, this irony is lost of too many people; the most bland, predictable messages are seen as subversive and radical. To borrow an astute observation from theatre director Flavia D’Avila: we have a mainstream that thinks it’s the counterculture.

Political theatre has to do better than this, if it’s to make the difference it wants to make. You should feel short-changed with any political play that offers nothing more than validation of what you already think. To have any influence in the real world, you have to win arguments – supporting the winning side is not good enough, neither is sheltering arguments won in the theatre circles from a less supportive outside world. And if you’re not winning your arguments, that’s a sign that you need some better arguments. As I said, I can’t think of any easy answers for the leaderships of major theatres – if the artists you have available overwhelmingly back one side in a debate, you can’t force them to think anything else. But a start might be to make it clear that all political theatre is welcome, and not just the ones with views they like to hear. Supporting political theatre is welcome. Dividing it into good politics and bad politics is a mistake.

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