S C E N A : časopis za pozorišnu umetnost
Novi Sad, 2003. broj 4-5 godina XXXIX jul-oktobar YU ISSN 0036-5734

Jedanaesti međunarodni simpozijum pozorišnih kritičara i teatrologa :
Nova evropska drama: umetnost ili roba?
Aleks SIERZ (GB)
„Crippling debt and a diminished will to live”

Give pleasure to the people and let art be hanged
It’s always interesting when playwrights themselves comment on their work – and especially on the social conditions of their craft. For example, Simon Block, who is one of the new wave of British writers to emerge during the past 10 years, includes several apt comments on contemporary British theatre in his play, A Place at the Table (which was staged at the Bush theatre in London in February 2000). The play is a scathing satire on how television chews up writers. At its climax, Sarah, a commissioning editor, sums up the difference between art and commerce: „For him it’s his life, for me it can only ever be my living. I already gave myself to Art. In return it gave me crippling debt and a diminished will to live. So I’m afraid I’ve had to swap Art for knowing where I’m going to be tomorrow.”
Clearly, this dialogue contains some of our most cherished ideas about the difference between art and commerce. In our collective imagination, Art with a capital A is dangerous and hard: both for the artists and for their audiences. Not only is there no money in Art, but also it results in „crippling debt and a diminished will to live”. It’s unsafe, costly and somehow dubious. It also has bad psychological effects – a bit like fringe theatre in London! By contrast, commercial culture is safe – you know where you are when you have a regular job in television and a good salary. The pay is fine and the programme ratings always tell you whether you are any good or not. Surely, nothing could be clearer than this contrast between Art and Commerce.
Well yes, except that it comes from the mouth of a character who knows she has compromised and needs to argue a reluctant writer into obedience to her tv company’s needs – she’s not an objective neutral witness; she’s engaged in commerce and this is her sales pitch. As usual, the grim reality of social relationships tends to muddy apparently clear waters.

British theatre myths
The same observation also applies to the way we tend to think about British theatre in general. In reality, British theatre is contradictory, complex and unruly. One of its most accurate characterisations comes from British critic John Elsom: talking about the sheer perversity of British theatre, and its astonishing capacity to survive, he suggests that it might „best be celebrated as a triumph of the human spirit over various schemes for its better organisation and improvement”.
But although British theatre is complex and unruly, many people tend to see it in a simplistic way – this is one method of coping with the confusions of reality. For example, one common delusion is that there is a simple contrast between the subsidised sector and the commercial sector. Another illusion insists on thinking of the fringe theatre in London as a radical alternative to the mainstream. Such ideas about the British theatre system depend on old-fashioned archetypes which over time bear less and less relationship to reality. Such archetypes offer security, safety and simplicity; reality tends to be insecure, unstable and downright hard to grasp.
There are basically two traditional and archetypal ways of looking at British theatre: in visual terms, one is the twin peaks model; the other is the three islands model.
The twin peaks model is one way of seeing the contrast between art and commerce. This is satisfying because it offers a simple pair of polar opposites: on the one hand, art is authentic, personal and good. On the other, commerce is compromised, impersonal and bad. So the simple dual opposition between art and commerce has a political and moral side to it too.
But as well as this duality, there’s also another aspect of the British theatre system which has an appealingly simple structure: this time, instead of a duality, we have a tripartite structure. This is the three islands model. I’m referring to the fact that since about 1968 British theatre has been seen as a trio: subsidised sector, commercial sector and alternative fringe. As before, many critics have used this archetype as a guide to moral choices: subsidised theatre is a good thing, commercial theatre is a rip-off and the fringe is politically radical even if hopelessly unsuccessful.
Now, obviously both of these models – the bipolar system and the tripartite system – have firm roots in reality. They are the result of the growth of state subsidy in the post-war period and the explosion of alternative culture in the late 1960s. But although these archetypal structures are based on social reality, they never really reflected the complexities of the situation: for example, the reality has always been that plays have easily transferred from the subsidised sector to the commercial sector, subsidised theatres have used commercial houses, and writers, actors and directors have moved freely between all sectors. Yet, these archetypes have remained strong in the imagination: they had power because of their simple, mythical content.
However, they could not last for ever in the face of changing social realities. Indeed, these stereotypes crumbled remarkably quickly in the face of a trend that affected all parts of British society in the 1980s: the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal economics. Thatcherism imposed the profit motive on almost all sectors of public life. In the theatre, the effect of her decade in power was the complete commercialisation of the whole system. As most commentators have noted, the 1980s was an era in which success, counted as „bums on seats”, became a criterion for funding, while the „right to experiment” became a phrase which was spoken in whispers, and never passed the lips of the new breed of arts administrators.

Art or commerce?
By the start of the new millennium, the British theatre system had been commercialised from top to bottom. Now, subsidy makes up less than 50% of the income of subsidised theatres. In place of bipolar and tripartite divisions, the theatre system now resembles a single three-tier pyramid, with the great flagship institutions such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company at the top, closely followed by the top commercial organisations and smaller metropolitan and regional theatres. Since commercial criteria are now pervasive, the fringe is not longer defined politically as an oppositional area but economically as a poor relation. Indeed, Time Out – the London listings magazine – now lists shows in three categories: West End (the top subsidised theatres and the West End commercial houses); Off-West End (which includes theatres that are not in central locations); and Fringe (which includes poorly subsidised or unsubsidised venues).
Because of this complete commercialisation, beginners who put on shows in poorly subsidised spaces soon move to where the money is. One effect of this „desertion of talent” to the centre is that many fringe venues are now markedly less creative. Being poorly funded often means poor production values and tiny audiences. By 2002, successful high-profile pub theatres such as the Bush were trying to shake off the fringe label, while struggling fringe venues were facing increasing commercial pressures. Hamish Gray, The Tabard theatre’s artistic director, says, „If we have a production that does badly, the landlord is soon going to start asking questions.”  He’s referring to the fact that poor audiences mean that the pub cannot sell many drinks – being worried about poor bar sales may not be the best spur to creative risk-taking.

So what were the consequences of these developments?
1) The first consequence was that new writing was seen as uncommercial. So commercialisation not only affected material conditions, but it also created mental maps and affected psychological attitudes. One of the most important of these was the myth that new writing for theatre was box office suicide. In the 1980s and early 1990s, new writers, and especially young new writers, were exiled to the Siberia of studio theatres because theatre managements didn’t have the courage to put them on main stages. So young writers were told patronisingly: „We’ll put on a few shows in little venues like this and then one day you can graduate and be on a main stage.”
2) The second consequence of commercialisation was conservatism of form and content. Gradually, during the 1980s, the idea grew that the best way to get your play on was to have a small cast – three was a good number – and to stick to the style of social realism which is familiar to most British audiences from their experiences of television dramas and kitchen-sink naturalism. So it became common to see small plays with small casts, usually written in a straightforward linear way, in which the characters complained about how bad the world was. I remember talking to the director Anthony Minghella, who called these plays „mumble plays”.
3) The third consequence was a form of social Darwinism in which talent tends to percolate upwards. Because all of British theatre is now a pyramid, young artists tend to start near the bottom, perhaps working in a tiny fringe theatre for no money and then they gradually move upwards. The career of someone such as Stephen Daldry (who became the artistic director of the Royal Court) would be a paradigm case of this upwards movement. It’s also worth pointing out I think that in moments of extreme creativity and energy in British theatre – such as the mid-1990s – this idea of a single pyramid structure becomes affected by a form of cultural turbulence. For example, Dominic Dromgoole (former artistic director of the Bush) once said that „in the mid-1990s, there was a more vibrant garage-band feel when anyone could get their play on at the Old Red Lion or the Finborough (pub theatres). And people would enjoy that. At the moment, we have an overconcentration on the centre – the Royal Court, Soho and Bush – whereas 10 years ago there was no centre. You were as likely to have a good evening on the fringe as at the National. Now, there is not that ferment of energy on the margins.”
4) Finally, the fourth consequence of commercialisation was allergy to experiment. Because box office receipts make up about 50% of the income of many theatres, the idea of „bums on seats” – which started as a disparaging joke 20 years ago – has become standard practice. This means that programming of any theatres has to balance commercial success with experimental work that may fail at the box office. For example, a new writing theatre such as the Soho Theatre can occasionally put on cutting-edge new writing, such as Kerry Hood’s Meeting Myself Coming Back (2002) or Debbie Tucker Green’s Dirty Butterfly (2003), but then it has to balance this by more populist plays. The effect of this is to discourage experiment and to encourage a stylistic conservatism. (...)

Copyright: Sterijino pozorje 1998-2004.
 
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